New START May Have Stopped but MAD Remains in Effect | Opinion

Several weeks ago, I suggested the war in Ukraine was bleeding into other aspects of the U.S.-Russia relationship. Arms control, a subject Washington and Moscow were able to compartmentalize from other disputes during and after the Cold War, was at risk of being trampled by mutual antagonism.

Unfortunately, those words are truer today than they were earlier in the month. This week, during a stemwinder of a speech at the Kremlin that included the usual conspiratorial invective (and a lot of bored and sleeping faces), Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that Moscow will its suspend participation in the New START accord—a dense arms control agreement that was renewed by the United States and Russia only two years ago. Lambasting the U.S. and Europe for trying to wipe Russia from the map, Putin claimed the West wants "to deal us a strategic defeat." His contention that Washington was "meddling" in Russia's nuclear infrastructure was just that: a contention with no factual basis behind it.

U.S. and NATO officials immediately denounced Putin for unilaterally suspending the most crucial bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control treaty on the books. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Putin's announcement as "deeply unfortunate and irresponsible," even as he reiterated the Biden administration's position that the U.S. is fully prepared to resume arms control talks with the Russians anytime, anywhere. "With today's decision on New START, the whole arms control architecture has been dismantled," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned at a joint press conference with the EU and Ukrainian foreign ministers.

Back to Brinksmanship?
Russian President Vladimir Putin. ALEXEI BABUSHKIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's announcement is a disturbing development, but it's not necessarily a surprise. Weeks earlier, the U.S. State Department notified Congress about Russian non-compliance with some aspects of the accord, citing specifically Moscow's refusal to reschedule meetings of the Bilateral Consultative Commission that serves as an implementation forum. On-site inspections of U.S. and Russian nuclear facilities haven't occurred since 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted travel. Although the U.S. and Russia continued to transmit information to each other about the number of warheads, delivery vehicles, and launchers deployed in the field (James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment has counted over 25,000 notifications since New START was in force), those notifications will stop now that Putin is no longer actively participating in the treaty. The U.S. possesses the technical abilities to monitor the disposition of Russia's strategic arms, but without the usual notification procedures, the U.S. intelligence community will now have to spend more time verifying what Russia is (and isn't) fielding. Even then, as the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research's Andrey Baklitskiy says, "compliance will be disputed."

Putin's decision to suspend New START has nothing to do with the treaty specifically or Washington's commitment to its treaty obligations. Despite Putin's allegations, the U.S. is in fact fulfilling its obligations in both word and deed—Putin's inability to cite a specific U.S. violation during his Feb. 21 speech reveals all you need to know about how empty his claims are.

Putin's policy shift, rather, is about Ukraine and the general deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. Throwing New START ever closer to the incinerator is the latest attempt by the Russian strongman to use whatever leverage he has, whether it be the energy card or the nuclear card, to convince Washington and its European allies that long-term, indefinite military support to the Ukrainians comes with a cost.

In terms of the energy card, Putin hasn't played it very well. A series of shipment delays in the various pipelines connecting Russian natural gas fields to the European market, culminating in last September's closure of Nord Stream 1, hiked gas prices and forced European governments to subside energy bills to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars (Germany, for instance, approved a $195 billion fund last year to aid consumers struggling to pay their utility bills). The Europeans, however, were already concerned about Putin cutting off Russian fossil fuels long before the pipelines were severed. The European Union spent months enacting measures that made the winter far less painful than Putin may have expected, including boosting the continent's natural gas reserves and increasing purchases of liquified natural gas by 58 percent last year.

The nuclear card is more serious. Putin's suspension means that, for the time being, there are no restraints on the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems Moscow can develop and deploy. Under New START, those numbers are capped at 1,550 warheads and 750 launchers, respectively. At this early stage, we simply don't know whether Putin will go above those figures, but U.S. national security officials have to plan for the prospect anyway. Given the various technical methods the U.S. military and intelligence community have at their disposal, at least some changes to Russia's nuclear force posture will be detected by Washington.

The important point to remember is that, notwithstanding Putin's latest declaration, the strategic nuclear balance between the U.S. and Russia remains unchanged. Both countries have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy one another several times over. Mutual deterrence in the nuclear realm still applies, and arguments to the contrary are nothing more than threat inflation at its worst.

Yet let there be no dispute: U.S.-Russia relations are being played out exclusively through the prism of what happens in Ukraine. Everything else, including the most elemental but critical responsibilities like maintaining strategic stability between the world's two largest nuclear powers, may have to wait.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.