Arms Control Is in Limbo Until Russia’s War in Ukraine Ends

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of the word “suspension” implies that Russia isn’t entirely done with the New START accord, writes Amy J. Nelson.

Gavriil Grigorov/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

About the author: Amy J. Nelson is a David M. Rubenstein fellow in the Foreign Policy program and with the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at Brookings Institution.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russian “suspension” of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START. He faulted the U.S. for numerous supposed transgressions that, he said, only could have led to this outcome. Putin’s announcement was a long-awaited response to U.S. calls to resume inspections following their hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

What is New START? The treaty is the most recent in a series of legally binding arms control treaties that establish limitations to U.S. and first Soviet, now Russian nuclear arsenals dating back to the early 1970s. The current agreement, which is still in force, was signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. The accord decreased both sides’ nuclear arsenals, capping deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,500, limiting deployed and nondeployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles capable of launching one of these nuclear warheads as well as heavy bombers to a maximum of 800, It put a cap on the total number of deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers at any one time at 700. The treaty entered into force in 2011 and was designed to remain in force until February 2021, with the option for a one-time extension of 5 years. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the accord for five more years during a phone call on Inauguration Day in 2021.  

New START’s inspection regime has become a point of contention. All bilateral treaties since the late 1980s have included provisions for onsite inspections to verify treaty compliance. New START’s inspection protocol permits two types of onsite inspections, type one and two. Each side is permitted 10 type one inspections on military bases that are home to deployed bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs (no nuclear warheads). Eight type two inspections at facilities that include nondeployed weapons and systems were permitted annually. Critically, either side can request an inspection as little as 32 hours prior, ensuring that the inspected state does not have adequate time to cheat. Countries send teams of trained inspectors with previously agreed upon equipment to verify compliance with the treaty’s limitations. Inspections that have taken place since the treaty’s entry-into-force have confirmed that both sides are in compliance with the treaty’s provisions. These inspections have, until now, gone smoothly.

Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, however, inspections were suspended in an effort to prevent further transmission of the virus. However, since June 2022 the U.S. has called for resumption of these suspensions. Russia demurred, leaving the U.S. awaiting resumption or an official response. Finally, in January, the U.S. officially charged Russia with non-compliance of New START for failing to resume inspections. Putin’s announcement of suspension of inspections was Russia’s official response. 

For the time being, Putin has suspended Russia’s participation in New START. Use of the word “suspension” suggests that Putin is avoiding language implying that Russia is entirely done with the accord. Language in the corresponding legislation passed by the Russian Duma indicates that only the president can decide when or whether to end the suspension of the inspections. The suspension also does not apply to the limitations the treaty set on the two countries’ arsenals, and Russia will likely continue to abide by them. Indeed, it is both costly and takes many years to produce nuclear weapons, suggesting that Russia’s adding to its stockpile isn’t imminent. Further, If Putin sees any enduring value in the limitations to nuclear arsenals imposed by the treaty, the announcement is a political one—a wrist slap to the U.S. in response to its support of Ukraine in Russia’s war or as fodder for galvanizing domestic public opinion in his favor.

Suspending implementation of New START is also a move rich in symbolism. First, New START is the most recent treaty that has resulted from a now long and fairly consistent history and process of U.S.-Russian bilateral strategic nuclear arms control treaties. Suspending implementation wears away the enduring nature of this long history of cooperative security, a move designed to cause the U.S. angst. 

Second, the New START negotiation process originated with a U.S.-led effort to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations under Presidents Obama and Medvedev. Putin had temporarily stepped aside from the presidency, but would soon return to that office. Suspension sends an unassailable signal that the reset effort has failed and a reminder that the reset era is long over.

Third, following the demise of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. and Russian withdrawal from the Open Skies Treaty, and suspension of participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, suspension of New START adds to a growing list of ways Russia has contributed to the erosion of the international arms control architecture as well as to U.S.-Russian cooperative security. Putin’s latest decision perhaps provides a certain salience to the fact that U.S.-Russian relations are at a low not seen since the Cold War.

Fourth, New START is the most recent bilateral agreement to codify a carefully calibrated weapons-stability nexus between the U.S. and Russia. A suspension that indicates or alludes to a possible withdrawal is designed to remind the U.S. of the precariousness of this balance and inject fear into the relationship. At the height of the Cold War, both sides took years to come to a shared understanding of the importance of concepts like “parity,” wherein both sides maintain a certain equivalence that eliminates any incentive for the other side to strike first. Though, as mentioned above, Russia likely has neither the means for nor intention of building back up its nuclear arsenal, the threat of felling the last domino is a visceral one.

What’s next? Although Russia could withdraw entirely from New START, Putin’s announcement leaves open the possibility of Russian return—a decision that can only be made by the president. In truth, Russia has as much to lose from the treaty’s demise as the U.S. does. Both countries have benefited from the stability codified by bilateral nuclear arms control treaties for decades now. This latest development could be a political gesture aimed at the U.S., or it may be a path toward withdrawal. A resolution in either direction is unlikely until Russia’s war in Ukraine is over. The alternative, of course, is the demise of New START, which could sound a warning sufficient to trigger a rethinking of the international arms control architecture entirely.

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