There is a new kind of nuclear competition that hasn't been seen since the Cold War.
Controlling nuclear weapons has had a rough few years. Russia is the source of the latest bad news. This week, Vladimir Putin said that Russia is "suspending its membership" in New START. This is a treaty between Russia and the United States that limits the number of nuclear warheads and launchers that each country can have in place. Even though New START isn't totally dead yet, Putin's announcement is just the latest bad news for the arms control regime.
What is New START?Since the late 1960s, arms control talks and treaties have helped keep the United States and Russia, which are the two largest nuclear powers in the world, from going to war with each other. Even though each agreement is different, there are two things that all U.S.-Russia arms control treaties have in common: limits on the number of nuclear weapons and limits or bans on certain weapon systems.
Under New START, which went into effect in February 2011, Russia and the United States can only have 700 deployed launchers (nuclear-capable bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles) and 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads. It took the US and Russia seven years to change their nuclear arsenals to meet these limits. Since 2018, both countries are in compliance.
Warhead and launcher limits are the most important parts of New START, but the treaty also has a number of other ways to make sure it is being followed, like inspections of nuclear weapons facilities and regular data exchanges. These checks make sure that the treaty is followed, and they also make it easier for the US to learn about Russia's nuclear forces and vice versa.
What Does Suspension Mean?Putin's decision to stop New START is not a good thing, but it is also not the worst thing that could happen.
After Putin's speech announcing the suspension, Russia's foreign ministry made it clear that Russia would not deploy nuclear weapons or launchers above the limits of New START. But since Russia is pulling out of New START's checks and balances, it will be harder for the US to be sure that Russia is keeping its promise not to go over the treaty's limits.
Also, it's important to remember that there haven't been any on-site inspections of nuclear weapon facilities since the COVID-19 pandemic started, so that particular New START verification measure has been inactive for a couple years. Even though there was a pandemic, the US and Russia kept talking about their nuclear forces.
In its statement, Russia's foreign ministry left the door open for a return to full compliance with New START. However, it said that this will only happen if the US takes steps toward "general de-escalation," such as stopping its support for Ukraine. Given that Biden just went to Kyiv and promised to keep giving Ukraine military and financial aid, this seems unlikely.
What Happens Next?New START is the last treaty between the U.S. and Russia that limits nuclear weapons. The Trump administration left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 because Russia broke the rules. The next year, it also left the Open Skies Treaty, which was multilateral but focused on Russia. In 2002, George W. Bush pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The United States and Russia are both part of multilateral arms control agreements, such as the Nonproliferation Treaty and the Partial Test Ban Treaty. However, New START is the only bilateral agreement between the two countries that is still in place.
Russia's suspension comes at a bad time for nuclear stability around the world. China is quickly building up its nuclear arsenal, North Korea is getting ready to use low-yield nuclear weapons, and Iran is very close to getting uranium that can be used to make weapons. Defense hawks are putting more and more pressure on the United States to give up on arms control and build up its nuclear arsenal. This argument will get worse when START is put on hold.
Arms control treaties have been a key way to keep nuclear stability, especially between the US and the USSR during the Cold War and between Russia and the US after the Cold War. Russia's decision to stop following New START does not kill the treaty and does not mean that Russia will soon build up a lot of nuclear weapons. But the fact that there isn't a crisis right now is a sign that arms control is getting worse over time.
A steady drumbeat of dead nuclear treaties between the U.S. and Russia, growing nuclear arsenals, and hostility between the world's biggest powers is a recipe for less control and less stability. There is a new kind of nuclear competition that hasn't been seen since the Cold War. Arms control treaties could help stop the worst parts of this competition, but right now it doesn't look good for arms control.