What Russia’s Suspension of the New START Treaty Means

On Feb. 23, 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia is “suspending” its participation in the New START Treaty, a week before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Suspension, however, does not imply withdrawal from the pact. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Moscow would beef up its nuclear arsenal and deploy the Sarmat or “Satan II” Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The last Sarmat missile test, according to Western media citing US sources, was a failure.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of mixed messages. The Russian Foreign Ministry underlined that Putin’s decision to withdraw from the pact was “reversible.” The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that it would adhere to key obligations such as notifying the US of “launches of ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles)” and “quantitative constraints on strategic offensive weapons.” The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) entered into force in 2011 and was extended in February 2021, only two days before it was set to expire. Despite the fact that the Biden administration had only just entered office, the United States was able to win Russia’s continuation of the treaty for another five years. 

The treaty obligations call for the two nations to limit their strategic nuclear warhead stockpiles to 1,550, with further constraints on launchers like as ground-based ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers. This amounts to a 75 percent drop in warheads compared to the number of warheads the two sides possessed at the conclusion of the Cold War. Hans Kristensen estimates that Russia possesses “almost 4,500 warheads (plus 1,500 decommissioned),” of which 1,000-2,000 are non-strategic weapons. The former SORT – Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty – was superseded by the New START Treaty, which expired in December 2012. The New START deal was one of the few remaining weapons control treaties between the United States and Russia. 

In October 2018, President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which had been in effect for three decades. The United States was concerned about Russian treaty violations, in particular the range of the SSC-8 “Screwdriver” cruise missile, even though the INF Treaty only covered land-based missiles within a 500-5,500 km range. Moreover, the US was worried that the treaty did not include China and would prevent the US from deploying missiles to counter China’s intermediate-range weapons. China, of course, was not a signatory to the INF Treaty. 

Previous to that, under the George W. Bush administration, the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. As with the INF Treaty, the United States was concerned that the accord would restrict the United States’ ability to react to military weapons developed by nations other than Russia. The United States was particularly concerned about North Korea’s and Iran’s fast development of long-range ballistic missiles. According to the Bush administration, the ABM Treaty hampered the development of missile defences in the United States to address these new threats. 

Russia’s withdrawal from the New START treaty is unlikely to pose a severe danger. That is more likely a reaction to Western backing for Ukraine. The pact itself will expire in 2026. A more significant issue is whether Russia and the United States will be able to reach an agreement to replace the New START Treaty. These accords are hard and may take years to negotiate, so a new follow-up pact in the three years remaining seems unlikely. Yet, as previously stated, the New START Treaty might be extended for a length of time. Remember that the original pact was only valid for 10 years. As a result, the two parties have the option of extending the treaty further if they so wish, but there is one issue to be addressed. Both the United States and Russia are worried about China’s growing nuclear arsenal. In a few years, China is projected to acquire close to 1,500 nuclear weapons, the limit set by the New START Treaty on the United States and Russia (though this limit only includes warheads on strategic systems). Both nations would want to include China in any new deal, but doing so would make the effort much more difficult and complex. Putin’s departure from the New START Treaty is bad, but it is not a major issue as of yet. The ambiguous nature of ties between Russia, China, and the United States, together with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, provide a difficult conundrum for future strategic weapons control.

[Presidential Executive Office of Russia, via Wikimedia Commons]

Anuj Dhyani is a second-year Master’s student in international relations at OP Jindal Global University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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