On March 15, the U.S. State Department called out Russia for suspending New START, a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty that came into effect in February 2011.
Scheduled to expire in 2026, New START caps the United States and Russia each at 1,550 strategic warheads, and the number of deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and heavy bombers at 700 each. The agreement entails a thorough verification regime to ensure compliance, including a maximum of 18 on-site inspections annually.
According to Western experts, there is no provision for Russia’s “claimed suspension of the treaty.” That, according to the State Department, makes the suspension “legally invalid.”
President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension on February 21, just three days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-out invasion of Ukraine.
Putin said Russia would not review the country’s suspension of New START until “the United States changes” and exhibits signs “of common sense in what they are doing in relation to Ukraine.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called for a change in attitude “of the collective West,” arguing that “the security of one country cannot be ensured at the expense of the security of another.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov similarly claimed it was “off-charts aggression of the U.S.” that had initiated a “total hybrid war” against Russia, making arms control “almost impossible.”
But it is Russia that invaded its smaller neighbor Ukraine on various false pretexts. Ukraine, in fact, had given up its own nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances that Moscow would respect its existing borders and “refrain from the threat or use of force” against its “territorial integrity or political independence.”
And it is Russia that is shirking its nuclear arms control treaty obligations.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan denounced the “absurdity” of Russia’s “under threat” rhetoric, saying the invasion of Ukraine is “a war of choice” that Moscow can end at any time.
Yale Historian Timothy Snyder summarized Russia’s disinformation strategy regarding Ukraine this way: “When an empire attacks, the empire claims that it is the victim.”
The State Department says Russia has failed to comply with New START by refusing to allow inspections, refusing to meet in the treaty’s implementation body and refusing to provide treaty-mandated notifications, “including on the status and movement of its accountable nuclear forces.”
“The strong U.S. and international response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine does not absolve Russia of responsibility to fulfill its legal obligations under New START,” the State Department said.
Researchers say Russia’s suspension of New START has brought the prospect of nuclear war “a step closer.”
That is arguably by design.
The Kremlin has regularly included threats of a third world war and the use of nuclear weapons among its talking points since Russia invaded Ukraine.
“[T]here is no military value in using nuclear weapons against Ukrainian targets. Instead of ending the war, such an atrocity would almost certainly draw NATO into the conflict, bringing about Russia’s defeat and Putin’s own downfall,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Arms Control Association, wrote for the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law.
Kimball noted that “from the legal perspective” Putin’s nuclear threats violate the United Nations Charter as well as multiple international agreements, including the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which “has the support of some 130 states…”
Moscow’s suspension of New START fits into that broader pattern of nuclear-threat brinkmanship.
Days after invading Ukraine, Putin put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on “high alert.”
Analysts say that announcement was intended, in part, to dampen and curtail Western support for Ukraine.
Moscow’s “nuclear blackmail” strategy has included its threat to hit Ukraine with nuclear weapons and the Russian military’s seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, where shelling has raised the specter of an atomic catastrophe.
Analysts say the suspension of New START fits the calculus of “compellence” — using the threat of nuclear weapons to secure political ends.
“Russia was likely hoping to use New START as leverage against the United States to convince Washington to stop supplying military aid to Ukraine,” wrote Heather Williams, a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C., argued that the Kremlin may have been banking on the “likely incorrect” view that the U.S. could be forced “into reducing its military and economic aid to Ukraine in order to keep the New START in place.”
Russia claims it will “continue to strictly comply with the quantitative restrictions stipulated in the treaty,” Gabuev wrote.
That, along with Putin’s rhetoric, signals that “the reasons for suspending the treaty are purely political.”