On February 21, the Russian Federation decided to suspend the New START Nuclear Treaty with the United States, reports Reuters. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that while he would not be withdrawing fully from the treaty (which does not expire until 2026), Russia will no longer allow the United States to inspect its nuclear sites. Nuclear inspections had already been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a conference was scheduled between the two parties for November 2022 to discuss resuming the inspections. The Russian Federation, however, called off that set of talks for unknown reasons, Yahoo News reports. Experts believe that the cause is likely due to the United States’ active support for Ukraine, which Russia invaded more than a year ago.
New START, or the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, is a continuation of the nuclear reduction and limitation treaties that have existed since the United States and the Soviet Union signed START I in 1991, and date back to the SALT I and II talks of the late 1960s, explains the Associated Press. New START was signed in 2010 under the Obama Administration and co-signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 in each country, down from 5,000 apiece in the original START I treaty and down from points in the Cold War that saw each country possess in excess of 30,000 nuclear weapons each, according to the United Nations.
The treaty was negotiated to last fifteen years, like the original START I treaty. Moscow’s suspension of the treaty does not necessarily mean they plan to start increasing their nuclear stockpile. In his February address to the Russian Federal Assembly, when Vladimir Putin announced his country’s suspension of the New START treaty, his grievances included that France and the United Kingdom, two other nuclear powers, were not included. The Kremlin also stated that there were reports that the United States may be planning to develop a new nuclear weapon.
The New START Treaty was a massive step forward in the dismantling of nuclear weapons between the two great powers of the Cold War and brought the number of nuclear weapons held by each country down by roughly two-thirds, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Much like the START I Treaty before it, New START was heralded as an essential step in decreasing the risk of nuclear war between the two powers that would conceivably start it: the U.S. and Russia. However, Russia’s decision to suspend its involvement in this crucial treaty is not something to be worried about at the moment, as the country has not begun any new nuclear tests or arms stockpiling.
Like much of Russia’s nuclear rhetoric over the course of its thirteen-month-long assault on Ukraine, it has been interpreted as strategic bluff and bluster. Suspending instead of withdrawing is a non-action– something Russia can do without any real outcome or consequence –that it can then claim as a diplomatic win. The worst Moscow can do as an outcome of this decision is to remove itself from the New START Treaty, a step it has not yet taken. Experts see this decision as a political ploy to gauge the reactions of the United States and other countries to see how they would respond to a diplomatic move, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. More likely than not, Russia will simply not renew the New START Treaty in 2026, putting itself back into the security dilemma that the START treaties were supposed to resolve in the first place.
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