The War in Ukraine Is Bleeding Into U.S.-Russia Arms Control | Opinion

In the span of a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to do the seemingly unthinkable: break Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas, expose the rot, confusion and poor leadership skills embedded within the Russian army and compel two previously neutral countries (Sweden and Finland) to apply for NATO membership. If leaders in Western Europe were once sanguine about Putin's ability to be pragmatic, they no longer hold any doubt. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who took pains to keep a channel of communication open to the Kremlin, is now calling for Putin to be investigated for war crimes.

Yet as unapologetically violent Russia's tactics have been (and continue to be) in Ukraine, Russia itself isn't going anywhere. Putin may not be going anywhere either. Despite his haphazard, tone-deaf management of the war, the majority of the Russian population either remains supportive of Putin, or would prefer to tune out altogether. To the extent there is criticism, the Russian punditry class is taking aim at the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian military hierarchy. According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank in London, only 12-15 percent of the Russian population are considered active members of the opposition. If there is a threat to Putin's rule ("if" being the key word), it will likely come from segments of the Russian elite, not a pro-democracy grassroots movement prominent Russian exiles dream about.

There is also a big question about how dramatic a post-Putin Russia would actually be. While those of us in the West like to believe that Russia would magically become a peace-loving, freedom-seeking democracy with a more pliable foreign policy the moment Putin vacates the scene, this is the absolute best-case scenario—and an incredibly idealistic one. This is the same exact sentiment that got the George W. Bush administration into trouble after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003. Instead of sweets, flowers, cheering Iraqis and the installation of a parliamentary democracy, the U.S. and its coalition partners got looting, arson, confusion, and sectarian conflict.

The point here isn't to completely write off the prospect of a democratic Russia or dismiss those who clamor for it. Rather, it's to remind policymakers that, Putin or no Putin, the relationship between Russia and the collective West will continue to suffer from systemic disputes, conflicting interests, and disagreements about Russia's proper role in the world.

One of those systemic disputes is arms control. This is especially concerning, not only due to the seriousness of the nuclear weapons issue in general but also because of what it says about U.S.-Russia relations as a whole. If Washington and Moscow can't agree on maintaining a sense of balance on the nuclear file, what can they agree on?

This isn't a metaphorical question. During the Cold War, through intense periods of stress and rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, officials in both capitals were able to silo the arms control discussion, protecting it from being trampled on by non-nuclear disagreements. In 1963, less than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. The U.S. and the Soviet Union put their signatures on the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 1972, despite the fact that the Soviets were funneling military aid to the very Vietcong insurgency that was killing Americans in South Vietnam. And in the early to mid-1980s, after years of stop-and-start negotiations and numerous proxy wars in Africa and Latin America at the time, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally inked the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 1987, banning the production and deployment of an entire category of nuclear missiles.

Those days are now over. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the arms control architecture between the U.S. and Russia was falling apart. Treaty after treaty has been ripped up. The George W. Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, arguing that it prevented the U.S. from adequately defending the nation from missile attacks. The INF treaty is no longer operable; in 2019, the Trump administration withdrew from it, complaining that Moscow wasn't complying with its terms. The Open Skies Treaty, which allowed U.S. and Russian aircraft to conduct surveillance flights of one another's territory, has been dead for years.

A Ukrainian serviceman
A Ukrainian serviceman uses his foot to brush snow off the top of a BMP 2 infantry combat vehicle in the Donetsk region on Jan. 30, 2023. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

There is only one arms control accord keeping the U.S. and Russia from building as many nuclear weapons as it wants: the New START Treaty. This agreement, coming into force in 2011 and extended by President Joe Biden and Putin in January 2021, limits Washington and Moscow to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. New START expires in 2026, and when it does, there will be no replacement unless U.S. and Russian diplomats get to work.

While there is still time, the prospect of negotiating a replacement looks slim. New START is on shaky ground. U.S. and Russian inspectors haven't conducted on-site monitoring of their respective nuclear weapons facilities since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Moscow canceled a meeting with the U.S. in November that was meant to address the issue, and those sessions haven't been rescheduled yet. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia's chief arms control official, suggested this week that the dire state of U.S.-Russia relations could mean the entire arms control edifice implodes with nothing left to show for it. And on Jan. 31, the U.S. State Department formally accused Russia of violating New START by blocking the resumption of on-the-ground inspections.

Can both sides eventually find their way back to the table? The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the harder it is to imagine. Emotion and mutual distrust are eroding what would normally be low-hanging fruit.

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.