Putin’s Move on Nuclear Treaty May Signal End to Formal Arms Control
"Mutual inspections have been suspended for years because of the pandemic. But New START, the last nuclear agreement between Russia and the United States, is dying.
WARSAW — When President Vladimir V. Putin announced at the end of a 100-minute speech on Tuesday that he would suspend Russia’s participation in the New START treaty — the last surviving arms control agreement between the two largest nuclear-armed powers — it was one more indication that the era of formal arms control may be dying.
Mr. Putin made clear that he was not pulling out of the treaty, which expires in February 2026. Nor did he threaten to deploy more strategic nuclear weapons — the kind that can soar across continents — beyond the limits of the treaty, which keeps both sides to 1,550 nuclear weapons. And the treaty was already in deep trouble; the State Department announced last month that the Russians were out of compliance.
But on Tuesday Mr. Putin made clear that the United States would not be inspecting Russian nuclear sites, a central element of verifying compliance with the treaty. And more broadly, he sounded like a leader who was done with arms control at a time of escalating confrontation with the United States and NATO.
If that attitude holds, whoever is sitting in the Oval Office when the treaty expires in a bit more than 1,000 days may face a new world that will look, at first glance, similar to the one of a half-century ago, when arms races were in full swing and nations could field as many nuclear weapons as they wanted.
Mr. Putin argued that he was forced into his decision. “They want to inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on us,” he said, picking up a phrase that American officials have used to describe their desired outcome for Russia in the war against Ukraine, “and climb on our nuclear facilities.” He said that the Ukrainians had already used drones to attack strategic air bases in Russia, where the Russian Air Force keeps the bombers that can deliver nuclear weapons.
He said he wasn’t about to allow inspectors to survey those facilities, because they could pass their findings on to the Ukrainians to launch further attacks. “This is a theater of the absurd,” he said. “We know that the West is directly involved in the attempts of the Kyiv regime to strike at the bases.”
None of this changes the status quo very much. Nuclear inspections were suspended during the Covid pandemic, when inspectors on either side couldn’t get into Russia or the United States. But over the past year, as travel restrictions lifted, Russians came up with reasons to deny inspections — and charged, as Mr. Putin did again on Tuesday, that the United States was not living up to its inspection requirements either.
The United States retains some visibility over the Russian arsenal, mostly with satellites that keep track of Russian nuclear movements. But there is a deeper worry. The five-year extension of New START that President Biden and Mr. Putin agreed upon in the first month of the Biden presidency is the only one permitted under the agreement, which was negotiated during the Obama presidency. That means an entirely new treaty would have to be pieced together. And while American officials insist that they want to negotiate a new treaty, it is increasingly hard to imagine that happening in the next three years.
The reasons are numerous. First, there is virtually no communication between the two countries. The “strategic stability talks” that Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin agreed upon in June 2021, at their only face-to-face meeting as presidents, were suspended after the invasion of Ukraine.
Second, trust between the two countries is virtually nonexistent. Mr. Putin and Mr. Biden have not spoken directly in more than a year. In the ensuing time, Mr. Biden has described the Russian leader as a war criminal, and Mr. Putin has called the American president the aggressor in Ukraine. In private, American officials sometimes concede that even if they negotiated a treaty, it would be almost impossible to imagine the Senate ratifying it under these conditions.
Third, the treaty as it stands does not cover the nuclear weapons the world worries about most in conflicts such as in Ukraine — the “battlefield nukes,” or tactical nuclear weapons, that Mr. Putin has episodically threatened to employ against Ukrainian forces. Russia has 2,000 or so; the United States has a few hundred.
Finally, another treaty simply between Moscow and Washington no longer makes sense to most nuclear experts. The Pentagon now estimates that China, which is rapidly expanding its arsenal, could deploy 1,500 weapons in the next dozen years, matching the American and Russian arsenals. So an arms control treaty that left out one of the three major powers would be all but useless. And so far, China has showed no interest in joining negotiations — if there were any.
Still, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Tuesday, after Mr. Putin spoke, that he would be willing to negotiate a new treaty that was “clearly in the security interests of our country” and, he added, “in the security interests of Russia.”
Mr. Putin’s announcement, he added, was “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.” But he suggested that the United States would not change its compliance with the treaty, no matter what Russia did.
“I think it matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area,” he said. “It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”