NATO wants “to deliver a strategic defeat to us while sneaking into our strategic nuclear installations,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his state of the nation address on February 21. After the jab came the uppercut. “Regarding this, I have to say that Russia suspends its participation in the New START Treaty.”
The speech was given one day after US President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv and marks the latest escalation in the ongoing tit-for-tat between the two countries. President Putin went on to give assurances that Russia is only suspending, not withdrawing from, its participation in the treaty and that there is currently no intention to increase its current strategic nuclear arsenal.
However, this was intended to be a deeply troubling announcement and now means that there are no formal arrangements for on-site inspections to verify compliance with the New START’s mutually agreed limits. It is reasonable to conclude that the two nations with the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles may be headed in the not-too-distance future into a new arms race era.
Even if Putin’s decision was reversed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the divergence between these two nuclear powers will most likely require a new approach regardless of the immediate fate of New START.
The US and Russia agreed in February 2021 to extend the agreement for an additional and statutorily allowed final five years. New START is the last remaining pillar of the bilateral US-Russia nuclear arms control regime and sets limits on both parties’ strategic offensive nuclear forces. Historically, both countries participated in these arrangements as they provided transparency on the size and capability of each other’s nuclear forces, and permitted a reciprocity in force reduction.
But throughout the last two decades, arms control agreements have become progressively less viable as national interests and strategies evolve on both sides. Emerging technologies, political mistrust, and increased global competition have all contributed to changing calculations between the two nuclear-armed powers.
When talks got underway on the treaty’s extension, the gaps in interests became ever more pronounced. The Russians wanted to set caps on modernization upgrades to current US weapons and incorporate issues such as missile defense, the NATO nuclear sharing program, and weapon systems in France and the UK. The Americans hoped to rein in and account for Russia’s non-strategic weapons, bring China into the fold, while including domains such as space and cyber, and technological developments in hypersonic and other exotic systems. The task was already fraught with political landmines; Russian aggression against Ukraine simply added more layers of complexity to a time-limited endeavor.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war put a pause on mutual inspections and negotiations. During this time, the US Department of State issued a report accusing Russia of non-compliance with New START, as the Kremlin had halted on-site inspections by the US and refused to participate in the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) meetings. Putin’s decision to suspend — something not permitted under the agreement — also ensured there would now be no data declarations and notifications from Russia.
What’s Russia’s rationale? As Putin would have one believe, the United States would send data from its inspections to the Ukrainians, which would assist them in exacting so-called “strategic defeat” on Russia. The US has denied involvement in Ukraine’s December drone strikes at the Engels Air Base in Saratov, which hosts numerous nuclear weapons delivery aircraft, and other bases, something perhaps supported by the bases’ known role in Russian defense.
Another argument suggests that Putin is hoping to stoke Western fears about Russia’s use of nuclear weaponry to save its unsuccessful military adventure in Ukraine. The Russian leader has made numerous and unsubtle threats related to nuclear weapons use, emphasizing that the West must take care, and must remember his strength in this area. Putin believes that nuclear weapons ensure Russia’s status as a great power and most importantly, guarantee the survivability of the current regime.
At the very least, the suspension of New START emphasizes that policymakers must understand that the world’s nuclear terrain will change, significantly, in the coming years. Arms control agreements have too often become ends in and of themselves and have not kept pace with evolving strategic interests. Putin’s decision may not be the final nail in the coffin of the arms control-era born of the Cold War, but it moves the world closer to that point. The West needs to urgently assess its interests based on a clear-eyed threat assessment.
Aaron Allen is a Senior Non-resident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was most recently a National Security Fellow with the Robert Bosch Stiftung where he worked for the German Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation in the Bundestag and Auswärtiges Amt in Berlin. Previously, he worked in the US House of Representatives as a foreign policy advisor.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.