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New START: Russia puts nuclear weapons treaty on hold

August 11, 2022

New START provides for mutual nuclear arsenal controls between the US and Russia. Since Russia suspended inspections, the only remaining nuclear disarmament treaty between the nuclear powers is at stake.

US Titan nuclear warhead on display in Tucson, Arizona
Nowadays, there are fewer nuclear warheads than during the Cold War — but weapons systems are more sophisticatedImage: Erich Schmidt/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Russia has issued a dual message: The US will not for the time being be permitted to inspect Russia's nuclear arsenals. But Moscow will comply with the terms of the treaty and is fully aware of "its unique role" as an "important instrument for maintaining international security and stability," the Russian foreign ministry said. However, the unprecedented step to suspend inspections shows what a shadow the Ukraine war has cast over relations between the two countries.  

According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, his county's action was triggered by Washington's notification to conduct an inspection on Russian territory in the coming days. Considering the current tensions in bilateral relations, this looked in fact like an "outright provocation," Ryabkov stressed. 

It is important to realize that inspections have been suspended since early 2020 not because of geo-political considerations, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Barack Obama (l) and Dmitry Medvedev smiling
When Presidents Barack Obama (l) and Dmitry Medvedev signed new START in 2010, tensions were lower than todayImage: AP

Russia sees 'unilateral advantage' for the US

START stands for Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty. The 2010 agreement obliges both sides to limit their deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 and imposes limits on delivery systems such as intercontinental missiles, submarines and bombers to 800 on each side. That agreement also includes each side committing to allow up to 20 inspections each year on the other's territory.

The current situation provides the US with "unilateral advantages," as they effectively "deprive the Russian Federation of the right to conduct inspections on American territory," the Moscow foreign ministry said in a statement.

This is where the Ukraine war comes into play — albeit only indirectly. The war itself, in which Russia is the aggressor and the US supports Ukraine in a whole variety of ways, is not the reason given by Russia in halting the work of the inspectors. Moscow merely points to the fact that because of western sanctions, Russian inspectors have problems entering the US. Furthermore, Russian representatives in the US face health risks due to rising numbers of COVID infections. Once the current problems are solved, then Russia would permit inspections again — "immediately."

Berlin protesters posing as Putin and Trump point nuclear warheads at each other
In Germany, protesters took to the streets in 2019, when the US withdrew from the INF-treaty Image: Imago Images/epd/C. Ditsch

US withdrawing from important treaties

The New START deal represents the latest in a long list of disarmament efforts between the two leading nuclear powers. In the 1990s there were the two START treaties. But START-I expired in 2009 and START-II never came into force. The result was the follow-up agreement: New START. 

Back in the 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union signed disarmament treaties such as the ABM agreement of 1972 limiting missile defense systems. But the Americans pulled out of this deal unilaterally in 2002. And in 2019, under President Donald Trump, Washington withdrew from the INF treaty on ground-launched intermediate range missiles, And in 2020 Trump announced that the US was leaving the Open Skies aerial surveillance treaty, which had been viewed as a confidence-building measure. What remained was the New START deal. 

infographic showing number of nuclear warheads per country EN

Biden wants China in the picture

But now the future of that agreement is also in question. It was extended only last year for a maximum period of five years and is set to expire in 2026. And the Russian side says that is how it should stay, regardless of the war or the sanctions. 

But what will happen after 2026? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently complained that Washington had not come up with any offer for new negotiations. For his part, US President Joseph Biden said in January that his administration was prepared for talks on a follow-up agreement. But, he added, Russia's war against Ukraine amounts to an attack on the very pillars of international order. Biden also called on China to join efforts to come up with a New START follow-up. 

China's nuclear arsenal is significantly smaller than that of the US. The Stockholm-based peace research institute, SIPRI, estimates in its 2022 report that the number of China's nuclear warheads totals 350. But, it adds, China is catching up fast. And with the concerns that the West has over the possibility of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, it is no surprise that Biden would like to see China at the negotiating table. But Beijing and Moscow have in the past both argued that the French and British nuclear arsenals, with a total of up to 500 warheads, would also have to be on the agenda.

Black and white photo of a A Soviet SS-21 tactical short-range nuclear missile on parade in Red Square, Moscow at the Victory Day parade May 9, 1985
In 1985, Moscow put Soviet SS-21 tmissiles on parade in Red Square, on Victory Day Image: AP

Nuclear deployment more likely than ever

During the Cold War in the 1980s, the global total of nuclear warheads was put at 70,000. The current SIPRI figure is just under 13,000. But that drop in numbers offers little consolation because of the technical modernization of today's weapons compared with the sheer mass of previous decades. Today's nuclear weapons are, quite simply, much more accurate. And the development of so-called "mini-nukes," which might not be able to destroy a whole country, but instead provide a tactical advantage, makes nuclear deployment all the more likely.  

The latest annual report from SIPRI talked of "clear indications" from early in 2022 that the reduction in the global nuclear arsenal witnessed following the end of the Cold War "has come to an end." What is more: "All nuclear powers are currently doing what they can to further boost or modernize their arsenals. Most of these countries also step up the tone of their rhetoric, putting their nuclear potential at the center of their military strategies. A very worrying trend."

That report came just a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24. And Moscow has since made it very clear that it does not exclude the use of nuclear weapons.  

This article was originally written in German.

A Realistic Goal or a Utopian Dream? A World Without Nuclear Weapons # 24.09.2010 # People and Politics

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