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What's left of Russia -US nuclear arms control?

January 2, 2023

Thirty years ago, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons and signed the START II treaty. Today, with a war raging in Ukraine, all hopes for disarmament seem to have been shattered.

US President George Bush (l) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin smiling at each other and raising their glasses
US President George H. W. Bush (left) and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed START II in 1993Image: epa AFP/dpa/picture-alliance

On January 3, 1993, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his US counterpart, George H.W. Bush, met in Moscow to sign the START II treaty that would regulate the dismantling of their respective long-range nuclear weapons systems, they toasted and smiled at each other.

Just a few years after the end of the Cold War, the former adversaries had come to an agreement that was intended to put an end to the nuclear arms race.

But 30 years later, and nearly a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to invade neighboring Ukraine and threatened to use nuclear weapons, that agreement now seems to be null and void.

A discarded US "Titan" intercontinental ballistic missile at the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson, Arizona
Titan II intercontinental ballistic missiles, seen here at the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson, Arizona, were a major part of the US defense program during the Cold WarImage: Erich Schmidt/imageBROKER/picture alliance

'Heyday of bilateral arms control'

START, or Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was intended to reduce the number of so-called strategic weapons — long-range delivery systems of nuclear weapons. START II stated the intent to deactivate all land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple warheads and to reduce strategic nuclear warheads to a maximum of 3,000 to 3,500 per side by 2003.

Political scientist Johannes Varwick of the University of Halle told DW that, 30 years ago, the world saw "the heyday of bilateral arms control after the end of the East-West conflict. START II was both the result of an improvement in the political relationship between the two superpowers and the motor for further confidence-building measures," he said.

The precursor, START I, was initiated by US President Ronald Reagan while the Cold War was still in progress. It was then signed by Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, and, on the Soviet side, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1991, just five months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. START I went into effect at the end of 1994.

In retrospect, it's significant that at that time, in an additional protocol, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan also committed themselves to surrendering all of their nuclear weapons from the Soviet era, something that today's Ukrainian leadership has since come to bitterly regret.

START II never came into force

In contrast to START I, however, START II never actually came into effect. Tensions between Moscow and Washington increased again due to US military operations in Kosovo and Iraq, and because of NATO's eastward expansion. Eventually, Russia linked

the ratification of the treaty to maintain the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the use of missile defense systems.

"When the US withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2002, START II was also dead," said historian Henning Hoff, executive editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Negotiations on a START III agreement still took place, but they eventually petered out.

However, interest in strategic nuclear disarmament in Washington and Moscow remained. In 2002, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty stipulated the number of nuclear warheads on both sides to be between 1,700 to 2,200 — "still more than enough to destroy the Earth," according to Hoff.

Both sides finally managed to conclude the New START agreement, which came into force in February 2011 — and is officially valid to this day.

New START obliges both countries to reduce their nuclear warheads to a maximum of 1,550 each, and limit the number of delivery systems such as ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles and bombers to 800 each. For verification, each side may carry out inspections in the other country. A five-year extension of the agreement was signed by Putin and US President Joe Biden in 2021, in effect making the contract valid until 2026.

Launch of a Sarmat missile on Kamtchatka peninsula, with a rocket taking flight amid a cloud of orange fire and dust in front of a blue sky
The Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile is Russia's latest addition to its nuclear arsenalImage: Cover-Images/IMAGO

New START still in effect, despite Ukraine war

In principle, Russia's war on Ukraine has not put an end to the agreement, though Russia "temporarily" suspended inspections of its nuclear arsenal last August, six months after the start of the war. Officially, this wasn't due to the war but rather as a result of Western sanctions against Russian aircraft, which prevented the Kremlin from flying its inspectors to the US. Russia even said it would abide by the provisions of the treaty and appreciate its "unique role" as an "important instrument for maintaining international security and stability."

In fact, New START is the only remaining bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty between the US and Russia today. Former US President Donald Trump suspended the ban on ground-based intermediate-range missiles in 2019, and in 2020 withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, which had allowed mutual reconnaissance flights as confidence-building measures.

1,300 candles forming a message " No War, No Nukes !" are lit in front of the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome at the memorial park in Hiroshima Prefecture on March 8, 2022.
'Arms control today seems like a relic of the distant past,' said Hoff — despite anti-nuclear weapons movements around the world, like here in Hiroshima, Japan last MarchImage: Takuya Yoshino/AP/picture alliance

Gloomy prospects for arms control

Where does the world stand on nuclear arms control today? The latest annual report from the Stockholm-based peace research institute, SIPRI, stated there were "clear indications" in early 2022, just before the invasion of Ukraine, that the reduction of global nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War "has come to an end." It continued: "All of the nuclear-armed states are increasing or upgrading their arsenals [...] This is a very worrying trend."

According to historian Henning Hoff, today's Russia, "which serially and habitually breaks treaties and international law, and in addition repeatedly blatantly threatens to use nuclear weapons, is not a serious negotiating partner when it comes to strategic disarmament."

Hoff said Russia's invasion also demonstrated "that only nuclear states, or those that benefit from the US nuclear umbrella as NATO members, can feel reasonably safe."

But "arms control today seems like a relic of the distant past," said political scientist Johannes Varwick. He pointed to other nuclear powers such as China, "which has not yet been integrated into any treaty framework in the nuclear field, with the exception of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."

Strategic disarmament, Varwick said, is only possible "through an improvement in political relations between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, which seems utopian from today's perspective. So now is a time of damage limitation, not grand visions."

This article was originally written in German.