Putin Stops New START
Russian president Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Russia “is suspending its participation” in New START, a treaty between the U.S. and Russia limiting the deployment of long-range nuclear weapons. Putin blamed his decision on the West, which he claimed instigated the war in Ukraine: “[I]t was they who unleashed the war, and we used force to stop it.” On February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine, seeking at first to re-annex the fledgling democracy and, when that proved too difficult, to capture a large swath of territory.
“The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms,” or New START, took effect in 2011 and was extended until 2026. It reduced the caps on Russian and American long-range nuclear weapons and gave both countries until 2018 to meet the new limits — which both countries did. Both countries’ nuclear forces are capped at:
- 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers;
- 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers (each bomber counting as one warhead); and
- 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers.
To ensure the other party is complying with the terms of the treaty, both nations may conduct 18 on-site inspections per year with limited notice, according to the terms of the treaty. Both nations reduced their armaments by 2018; the U.S. now has 659 deployed delivery systems, 1,420 deployed warheads, and 800 launcher systems, while Russia reportedly has 540 deployed delivery systems, 1,549 deployed warheads, and 759 launcher systems.
However, the treaty’s inspections provision has not been well-honored for more than two years. When COVID hit, both nations agreed to suspend inspections as a health precaution. Then in August 2022, Russia refused to restart the inspections because of U.S. sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, which Russia claimed stopped its inspectors from entering the U.S. The U.S. uses satellites to monitor Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Then on Tuesday, during his annual state of the nation address, Putin publicly adopted the suspended status of inspections as his official policy.
“The Western elite does not conceal their goal, which is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. It means to finish us forever and grow a local conflict into global opposition,” the aged president claimed. “The West uses Ukraine as a [battering] ram against Russia.”
Putin claimed that Western inspections of its nuclear weapons sites would aid the Ukrainian government (which he calls a Western puppet) in the current conflict. In late December, Russia shot down a Ukrainian drone flying toward Engels air base, from which Russia has launched air raids against Ukraine. Engels air base is approximately 400 miles from the front lines and houses strategic (nuclear-armed) bombers. This last fact, Putin suggested, justified suspending U.S. inspections after Ukraine’s attempted strike on the base.
New START is the latest iteration of a series of Cold War-era treaties that gradually thawed U.S.-Russia (then the U.S.S.R.) nuclear relations. By the late 1960s, both world superpowers had stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over, and had begun deploying missile defense systems which would only increase the arms race. Both enormous arsenals remained at hair-trigger alert primarily out of a lack of information about the other side’s intentions. The two countries began Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT I and II) in 1969, with a first agreement signed in 1972 and a second agreement signed in 1979 which mostly kept both nuclear arsenals from expanding.
The U.S. and Russia also agreed to an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 1972, which limited the number of missile defense systems each country could deploy. After intense debate over how to replace SALT II (which expired in 1985), the U.S. and Russia signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty (INF) in 1987, which required both countries to eliminate their intermediate-range arsenals and promise not to rebuild them. President Bush withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002 over counter-terrorism concerns, while President Trump withdrew from the INF treaty in 2017 over Russia’s blatant violations.
In 1994, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), in which they agreed not only to cap their long-range nuclear arsenals but also substantially reduce them. The 2003 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) reduced nuclear arsenals even further, and New START, ratified in 2011, reduced them still further.
Every president since Lyndon Johnson — Republican and Democrat — has pursued the same basic policy regarding nuclear arms control with Russia. Since the late ’60s, every U.S. administration has determined that 1) It’s convenient to limit Russia’s nuclear arsenal; 2) It’s wise to verify their compliance with treaty commitments, and 3) Limiting ourselves to a reasonable, manageable nuclear arsenal is a small price to pay to achieve the first two ends. While New START had critics on the Right, they mostly objected to the treaty’s terms — they wanted a stronger treaty, or one that included China — and not its basic idea.
Despite the lapse from 1985-1994 in a treaty on long-range nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia (or the U.S.S.R.) have been negotiating such agreements more or less continually since 1969. That changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. First, the U.S. suspended talks in response to the invasion. Then in late November, Russia indefinitely postponed talks scheduled for that week.
Now, Russia has suspended its involvement in the treaty altogether. Putin’s official suspension of New START marks the first time since the Vietnam War that the U.S. and Russia have neither a treaty or talks to govern their management of long-range nuclear weapons, capable of striking the other power’s heartland.
Russia has repeatedly threatened the West that it is willing to use a nuclear weapon in its effort to conquer Ukraine, a move experts fear might escalate into a global nuclear war. Now, Putin has officially suspended the U.S.’s only means for oversight and accountability.
“We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does,” said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Tuesday. “We’ll, of course, make sure that in any event we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies.”
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.