At the end of a lengthy address to the nation on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which aims to monitor each other’s nuclear weapons. It has been in force between the United States and Russia since 2011, was last renewed in 2021, expires in 2026 and is the last treaty in force on the control of nuclear weapons.
Russia’s suspension of participation means an end to the exchange of information about their respective arsenals between the two major nuclear powers in the world and for the first time since 1972 it puts an end to any sort of mutual inspections. In fact, the treaty was already suspended, because since 2019 these inspections had no longer been possible, first due to the problems related to the coronavirus pandemic, then due to growing tensions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
However, the formal suspension of New START could mark the definitive end of the season of control and limitation of nuclear weapons, after some treaties had already been gradually eliminated or allowed to expire in the last decade.
The New START treaty provided for a reduction in the so-called “strategic” nuclear warheads, which unlike the “tactical” ones used on the battlefield, are designed to be employed very far from the front, and to damage the enemy’s ability to make war, therefore also with a deterrent function. In fact, “strategic” nuclear weapons are those well present in the common imagination, bombs with extremely high destructive potential capable of devastating an entire city. “Tactical” weapons, on the other hand, are generally less powerful, even if the distinction between the two is often blurred.
– Read also: What are “tactical” nuclear weapons
The 2010 agreements were signed by then-presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, and were renewed in 2021 just days after Joe Biden’s presidency began (Donald Trump’s previous administration had shown little interest in a renewal). They stipulated that the arsenals of the United States and Russia should be limited to 1,550 warheads each and 800 carriers (missile launchers, submarines and bombers), of which 700 were active. As for nuclear warheads, they implied a 30 percent reduction in the arsenal. Periodic communications of information on the deployment and evolution of the arsenal were also envisaged, as well as cross-inspections.
Vladimir Putin in Tuesday’s speech justified the suspension of participation in the treaty by speaking of what he defines as “the aggression of the West” against Russia. According to the Russian president’s propaganda, it was not possible to allow American inspectors to visit Russian nuclear sites, because they could pass sensitive information to the Ukrainian government. He also accused the United States of having banned its inspectors from carrying out inspections, which the US government defines as false, arguing that it only expected reciprocity of visits.
Putin then clarified that the suspension does not imply a definitive withdrawal from the treaty and that they will not resume nuclear tests unless the “United States resumes them first”. Later, the Russian Foreign Ministry assured that Russia does not intend to deploy more nuclear warheads than the limits established by the treaty.
The immediate effects of the suspension may be limited: as mentioned, inspections had already been blocked for some years and the United States still seem able to remotely control the movements of the Russian nuclear arsenal, especially with the use of satellites. However, according to some experts, the suspension of routine communications between the two countries regarding nuclear weapons will not be entirely without consequences.
Furthermore, the decision seems to definitively sanction the end of the period of nuclear control and non-proliferation, already in crisis after some previous decisions. The latest was the US government’s announcement of its formal withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), i.e. the agreement that in 1987 banned any ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres: then the United States withdrew from the treaty, accusing Russia of violating it.
New START, expiring in 2026, would not have been renewable further, but it was necessary to replace it with a new treaty: the current relations between Russia and the United States make this prospect very unlikely. In addition today, unlike in the past, there are no longer just two powers with a significant nuclear arsenal (the United States and the Soviet Union) and among the most gifted is the country that most threatens US supremacy in the world: China. For this reason, the United States had expressed its intention to involve the Chinese government in talks on future agreements concerning the control of nuclear weapons, but for now received no for an answer. According to intelligence sources, the Chinese government is pursuing a long-term plan to reach Russia and the United States with 1,550 nuclear warheads.
North Korea’s missile tests and Iran’s nuclear program must also be included in this international context. The more than ten-year-old trend that seemed consolidated regarding a limitation of nuclear weapons as an instrument of power and deterrence seems to have reversed at this stage.
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