Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he is suspending the New START treaty—the last remaining nuclear arms-control accord between the United States and Russia—ratchets up East-West tensions to a new level and could revive a nuclear arms race that has been kept under wraps for several decades.
But things don’t have to hurtle so completely out of control. In his two-hour state-of-the-nation speech on Monday, the Russian president said he is “suspending … participation from New START” but “not withdrawing from the treaty.” In other words, he pledged (for what it’s worth) that Russia will not exceed the treaty’s limits on the size of the nuclear arsenal or on testing nuclear weapons—only that it will no longer allow U.S. officials to conduct on-site inspections of Russia’s nuclear facilities.
On one level, this is not such a big deal. At first because of COVID, then because of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, neither side has inspected the other’s weapons sites for the past two years. However, with satellites and signals-intelligence intercepts, the U.S. and Russia have both been able—for many decades—to monitor each other’s nuclear activities and to detect significant violations of any treaty.
On another level, however, the clause allowing on-site inspections was the treaty’s most renowned feature—and it was important, since New START required the U.S. and Russia not merely to cap but also to cut the size of their arsenals. (The initials stand for Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.) Both sides had—and still do have—missiles armed with more than one warhead each. To meet the new limits, they had to modify some of those missiles to carry fewer warheads. Satellite imagery can reveal how many missiles a foreign country has—but not how many warheads might be stored inside a missile’s nosecone. Imagery can also detect crew members modifying a missile site—but not how they are modifying the missile. Hence the importance of on-site inspections.
Does any of this matter? For building trust and for providing a forum where experts on both sides can discuss suspicions and ambiguities, yes, very much so. But Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and his stepped-up hostility to the West have destroyed any foundations of trust. (In November, well before his speech on Monday, he had ordered his officials not to attend the most recent routine meeting of the bilateral forum.)
Does the end of inspections have any real impact on the balance of power? If Russia proceeded to load up its missiles with as many warheads as they can carry, would that matter? Not really. Each side has more than enough bombs and warheads to destroy all the targets it might need to destroy in the event of nuclear war. In other words, each side has more than enough to deter the other side from starting a nuclear war in the first place.
Still, arms races are propelled, in large part, by uncertainty and fear. One purpose of arms-control treaties, over the decades, has been to limit that uncertainty and, therefore, suppress the pressures for an arms race. Without the full certainty provided by on-site inspections, senior military officers, conservative intelligence analysts, and arms lobbyists could lay out “worst-case scenarios”—stipulating, for example, that Russia is fully loading its missiles and perhaps covertly deploying additional missiles as well. They could then argue that the U.S. must respond in kind, if just to avoid the “perception” of inferiority. It would be stupid to do this; even if the Russians did enlarge their nuclear arsenal, it wouldn’t mean we need to waste our money, too.
Still, we probably would. Back in the 1970s, the Pentagon declared that, as a matter of policy, the United States had to maintain the “perception” of parity with Moscow in its nuclear arsenal, even if precise equality was objectively unimportant. And this policy has remained in place.
The worst-case scenario syndrome is already beginning to take hold. In response to Russia’s cancellation of the bilateral meeting to discuss future inspections, the State Department declared, in a report last month, that the U.S. “cannot certify the Russian Federation to be in compliance with the terms of the New START Treaty.” In response to that, Rep. Mike Rogers, the new Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee, stated that the senior U.S. military leadership “needs to assume Russia has or will be breaching New START caps.”
It is a fair guess that Rogers and some of those U.S. military officers will soon propose that we breach the New START caps as well. In any case, Putin and his generals will assume that we will do so. In the 1950s and ’60s, before the era of nuclear arms-control treaties, both sides engaged in worst-case analysis—and built up their nuclear arsenals accordingly. Unless both leaders exercise some restraint, we could see a return to those dark days.
It is dumbfounding that Putin has unleashed this provocation. He must know that Russia’s economy and its military-industrial complex—barely able to sustain a conventional war on their border—are in no shape to engage in a renewed nuclear arms race. He must also know that the United States would likely match whatever steps he might take in this race. Congress recently passed a massive increase in the defense budget by a huge bipartisan majority. The budget includes funds to develop new weapons for all three legs of the “nuclear triad”—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers—and that was before the State Department’s declaration of Russian noncompliance with New START.
Even in gross numbers, Putin could not hope to race ahead. A detailed analysis by the Federation of American Scientists concludes that, if both sides breached New START limits by fully loading their missiles and bombers, the United States could increase its arsenal of long-range nuclear warheads and bombs from 1,670 to 3,570, while Russia could increase its arsenal from 1,674 to 2,629.
Then again, Putin has made several dumbfounding moves in the past year. It’s not out of the question that he could make another, however self-destructive it might be.
Again, none of this needs to happen. The U.S. and Russia are in a state of implacable mutual hostility. That isn’t likely to change as long as Putin remains in power and Russian troops remain in Ukraine. But the two countries do have a few common interests, one of which is the prevention of a new nuclear arms race. In his otherwise hostile speech, Putin did stress (he even repeated the point) that he was “not withdrawing from the treaty,” adding, “There is no connection between the New START issue and, let’s say, the Ukrainian conflict and other hostile actions of the West against our country.” This was a mendacious way of putting the matter (it’s entirely about Ukraine, and the U.S. has refrained from many hostile actions it might have taken against Russia), but it was also an indication that he’s not ready to go so far as violate the treaty.
On Feb. 3, 2021, just two weeks after Biden’s inauguration, he and Putin renewed New START for another five years without clamor, controversy, or discussion of any other issues. (The treaty was otherwise about to expire.) The accord will remain in effect—unless one side or the other declares it null and void—until February 2026. Between now and then, we can only hope that, on this topic, even if not on any other, both sides refrain from plunging into the depths of paranoia.