Last U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Deal Risks Slow, Dangerous Death Over Ukraine

One year on, the war in Ukraine is still setting off global shockwaves that ripple across the international community in the form of heightened tensions, economic disruption and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

But behind the veil of rising tensions between Russia and the United States, another crisis is quietly emerging, one that could prove even more consequential to the wellbeing of those living across the planet: the eventual death of the last remaining bilateral nuclear arms treaty between these two powers that possess more than 90% of the world's nuclear arsenal.

The deal, known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), suffered its latest blow earlier this week when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would be suspending his country's participation in the agreement. Established in 2010, New START is the successor to the original START, which was signed just months before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It restricts the number of nuclear weapons Russia and the U.S. may possess and provides critical reciprocal verifications measures to ensure mutual compliance.

On-site inspections were already suspended in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the outbreak of Russia's war in Ukraine, paired with Western sanctions applied against Moscow in response, foiled efforts to resume them. Now, the Kremlin's latest announcement has raised fears that the treaty may never be brought back on track.

Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general and U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs who served as chief U.S. negotiator for New START, told Newsweek that, under the terms of the treaty, "we both have very good, 24/7 eyes on what is going on with the other strategic nuclear force posture and that's valuable for predictability and stability overall."

"That is apparently being lost now," she added. "I think that is a very, very serious matter."

Gottemoeller sees the potential total collapse of New START as the greatest threat to arms control the world has seen in decades.

"Since the 1970s, negotiated restraint on strategic nuclear weapons has been one of the foundations of strategic stability between our two countries," she said. "So, I would say the large implication of this move is that strategic stability becomes more difficult to maintain if there is uncertainty, if there is no predictability."

"And furthermore, if the Russians use this as an excuse to actually get out of the limits of the treaty," she added, "it could lead to a buildup of nuclear weapons systems and a nuclear arms race."

US, Minuteman, Russia, Topol, ICBM, launch, combination
A combination of photos shows the U.S. test launching a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California on February 9, 2023 (L) and Russia test launching a Topol intercontinental ballistic from Kapustin Yar, Astrakhan on November 28, 2019. Space Launch Delta 30 Public Affairs/Russian Ministry of Defense

Notably, Russia has repeatedly assured that it would continue to abide by core tenets of the agreement, including the caps on its nuclear arsenal.

As it stands, these caps restrict both Russia and the U.S.' deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers to 700; their warheads on deployed ICBMs, on deployed SLBMs and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers to 1,550; and their deployed and non-deployed launchers of ICBMs, of SLBMs and heavy bombers to 800.

While the full extent of the Russian and U.S. warhead arsenals—including those scheduled for retirement—is believed to be closer to around 5,977 and 5,428, respectively, the last available figures released by the two countries regarding their stockpiles in September of last year showed both countries to be within the limits of the three New START categories. And, despite the lack of on-site inspections, Moscow and Washington affirmed that the other remained in compliance with the treaty.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Putin's recent announcement "deeply unfortunate and irresponsible," and said President Joe Biden's administration would "be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does." He also affirmed that Washington would "make sure that in any event we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies."

Putin, for his part, drew a direct connection between his decision to suspend Moscow's membership in New START and the conflict in Ukraine, arguing that the U.S. and its NATO allies were demanding the Kremlin abide by ultimatums while at the same time seeking to undermine Russian national security through their overt support for Kyiv.

"As if there is no connection between strategic offensive weapons and, say, the conflict in Ukraine or other hostile Western actions against our country. As if there are no vociferous claims about them seeking to inflict a strategic defeat on us," Putin said in his presidential address on Tuesday. "This is either the height of hypocrisy and cynicism, or the height of stupidity, but they are not idiots. They are not stupid after all. They want to inflict a strategic defeat on us and also to get to our nuclear sites."

While the connection to Ukraine is clear, the steady erosion of Russia-U.S. arms control, widely seen as one of the few mutual victories of the Cold War, predated the current conflict.

The first strike occurred more than two decades ago when then-U.S. President George W. Bush left the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. The second came when then-U.S. President Donald Trump exited the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, claiming that Moscow was already in violation over its construction of a missile system said to be within the restricted range of the agreement.

Moscow has long-held grievances of its own, accusing the U.S. and its allies of strategically encircling Russia with missile defense systems alleged to also have offensive capabilities. Putin cited this argument when introducing an array of new, advanced and nuclear-capable missile systems in his 2018 presidential address.

By the time Biden came to office in early 2021, New START was already on the verge of disintegration. The Trump administration had refused to extend the treaty as it sought a more comprehensive agreement involving more countries and more modern weapons platforms. Biden, however, accepted Putin's offered to renew the deal without condition for five years just two weeks after taking the oath of office.

Two years later, with the fate of the treaty once again uncertain, Gottemoeller said she could not be confident in the longevity of New START or the overall strategic stability dialogue between Russia and the U.S. given the events unfolding around the war in Ukraine.

"This moment is a very serious one. It's a serious crisis," she said. "And I know the United States will continue to do everything it can to convince the Russians that their interests are being served in this treaty regime."

New, START, number, of, US, Russia, nukes
A table shows the New START aggregate numbers of strategic offensive arms of the U.S. and Russia as of the latest declared data from September 1, 2022. U.S. Department of State

Whether this will be enough to assuage Moscow's concerns remained to be seen. In fact, Russia's February 24, 2022 attack on Ukraine was immediately preceded by a breakdown in short-lived Russia-NATO negotiations over security, including arms control, in Europe.

"The warfighting in Ukraine did not start out of nowhere, and is in fact a manifestation of a lot of things that went wrong in European security and Russia-U.S. relations," Dmitry Stefanovich, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council who serves as a research fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations' Center for International Security in Moscow, told Newsweek.

Stefanovich noted the breakdown of talks in which Russia sought "security guarantees" in late 2021 and argued that, even as New START initially survived the opening stages of the conflict, "growing animosity between Russia and the U.S. made it a matter of time before things turned nasty."

He identified the moment of inflection for the Kremlin as the onset of suspected Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory, including bomber bases, which have reportedly been conducted with direct support from U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets. This, he asserted, "elevated the topic to higher publicity—and now we are where we are."

Even if both countries continue to place importance on arms control efforts, Stefanovich said the lack of verification measures would only beget more mistrust.

"The biggest positive effect of arms control treaties was and remains greater transparency and better understanding of each other's arsenals and priorities," he said. "Should we lack such insights, a natural reaction would be to switch to worst case scenario planning, first of all based on increased perceived capabilities (both qualities and quantities) of each other's arsenals, augmented by mirror imaging."

And should New START fall apart altogether, the situation could become more dire.

"If we will indeed face a world without agreed limits on strategic weapons," Stefanovich said, "eventually we might end up in a very real arms race."

This is also the precise concern of Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher in the WMD Program at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva and a consultant for the Center for Political Research (PIR) in Moscow.

He too tied the Kremlin's calculus in suspending Russian participation in New START to escalations in the war in Ukraine, telling Newsweek that, "as long as this war continues, I don't see any prospect of really doing anything" in the way of reviving arms control between Russia and the U.S.

Baklitskiy's theory is that Russia was not looking for the kind of arms race in which the Soviet Union became mired with the U.S. in past decades, but rather that Putin's decision was a way of "having your cake and eating it."

"Russia shows the West that it's strong, that it might hurt them in places where they don't like to be hurt, and also it said that it's going to stay within the New START limits, and it probably expects that the U.S. will do the same," Baklitskiy said. "So you're getting the benefits of a treaty without letting the Americans walk on your military bases during the war. So that's a strategy of a sort."

But, he added that, "if that's the thinking behind it, then there is a major flaw because it's not a given that the U.S. will stick to it."

While the Biden administration has sought to express restraint in response to Putin's decision, Trump-era calls for a more robust nuclear posture in response not only to Russia's nuclear weapons but also to a growing Chinese arsenal not bound by any bilateral nuclear treaties continue to sound in both the Pentagon and Congress, especially among Republicans.

And while some may argue that the current levels of nuclear arms possessed by Moscow and Washington are already sufficient enough to destroy the world several times over, and therefore that the addition of several thousand more may not make much of a difference, Baklitskiy said that it's the not just the possibility of another nuclear build-up, but the motivations behind it that make such a trend so dangerous.

"We are breaking those limits in a process of our relations worsening, we are fighting proxy wars, and so on so forth," Baklitskiy said. "It's not that we are building just for whatever reason, we decided to spend some more money. It's because we don't trust each other, we believe the other side is trying to take advantage of us, and also there's China, which is supposedly growing its arsenal now, and the U.S. is considering how to deal with that."

With these factors eroding the trust needed to set the guardrails on nuclear weapons proliferation in the first place, he warned the last surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. may not be long for this world, and what comes next is all but certain.

"You can totally see how this broader dynamic is crushing New START, partly," Baklitskiy said, "but then it's reinforcing the same processes and it's metastasizing in the nuclear sphere, which can lead us to the arms race, and God knows where."

START, and, New, START, signing, US, Russia
A combination of photos shows U.S. President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in Moscow on July 31, 1991 (T) and U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signing New START in Prague on April 8, 2010. Joe Klamar/Corbis/AFP/Getty Images

Hans Kristensen, who serves as director of the Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information Project, also felt Russia's actions were likely to only further diminish Washington's appetite for dealing with Moscow, even if the Biden administration continued to believe in a more diplomatic course of action.

"Not only has Putin now essentially killed New START, but there is very little chance that the U.S. Congress would consider approving a new treaty with Russia after everything that has happened," Kristensen told Newsweek.

"If the United States decided to increase its arsenal - which the Biden administration does not think is necessary, that would ironically not be in response to Russia but to China," he added. "Pressure is building in the new Congress and the new conservative committee members seem elated that Putin is creating all these problems with New START because it helps their argument for increasing the U.S. nuclear posture toward China."

While Beijing has continued to press forward with expanding its nuclear arsenal, the latest Pentagon assessment in November placed China's stockpile at somewhere above 400, with the potential to expand to around 1,500 by 2035. The figure pales in comparison to the number of nuclear weapons possessed by Moscow or Washington.

As such, Chinese officials have consistently rejected U.S. overtures to enter into any sort of expanded START-like treaty and have called on both Russia and the U.S. to live up to their non-proliferation commitments as the world's leading nuclear weapons powers.

Should the U.S. ultimately opt to abandon these commitments in a bid to challenge China, Kristensen warned that this reaction had the potential to backfire as well.

"The plan is stupid, of course, because a U.S. increase would likely cause Russia to increase and potentially cause China to increase further, in which case the United States would be back to square one where it started," Kristensen said.

"The end result would be more adversary warheads aimed at the United States," he added, "with no increased security added and no problem solved."