There are fears of a new global nuclear arms race after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this week he will suspend the country’s participation in the New START treaty, which limits the number of warheads deployed by Russia and the United States.
The deal, officially known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was signed in Prague in 2010 by then U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. It is the last remaining nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Russia.
Putin announced Tuesday that he was suspending Russia’s participation, saying the treaty was “absurd” at a time when NATO was helping Ukraine fight Russian forces. He said he had ordered Russia’s ground-based nuclear weapons to combat readiness.
In a televised speech Thursday, on the eve of the anniversary of his invasion of Ukraine, Putin pledged further investment in Russia’s nuclear forces.
“We will pay increased attention to strengthening the nuclear triad [on land, sea and air],” Putin said. “We will continue mass production of air-based hypersonic Kinzhal systems and will start mass supplies of sea-based Zircon hypersonic missiles.”
Immediate impact unlikely, says scholar
Moscow’s suspension of the nuclear treaty, however, is unlikely to have an immediate impact, said political scientist Ian Hurd of Northwestern University.
“The New START Treaty is designed to put a limit on the number of nuclear warheads that each side can have. It was going to expire anyway, so having the end of the treaty come is not going to change very much in the substance of military relations between the two,” Hurd told The Associated Press. “But it might be symbolic that the Russian side is going to use nuclear weapons to escalate the political disagreements that it’s got in the world today.”
Russia and the U.S. together hold more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The New START treaty limits the two countries to 1,550 warheads apiece and allows each to inspect the other’s nuclear sites up to 18 times a year.
The inspections were put on hold three years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic and have not resumed, which Washington blames on Moscow.
“The only glimmer of hope here is that Russia has not withdrawn from the treaty, it has suspended its participation,” said Jane Kinninmont, Policy & Impact director at the European Leadership Network.
“And actually, when this treaty was extended when Joe Biden came into office, it was Russia that had been trying to push the U.S. to continue the treaty,” she said. “It is in both countries’ interests because it put limits on the nuclear arms race. And ultimately, the U.S. can outspend Russia if it wants to; it’s a much bigger economy. More likely, Russia wants to use this as a bargaining chip to say to the Biden administration, ‘Your support for Ukraine has costs.'”
A ‘grave error,’ says Biden
President Joe Biden called Russia’s suspension of New START a “grave error.” A spokesperson for the United Nations secretary-general called for Moscow to return to the deal.
Despite warming ties between Beijing and Moscow, China also called for Russia and the U.S. to abide by the nuclear agreement.
“The treaty is important for maintaining global strategic stability, enhancing international and regional peace and achieving the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” Wang Wenbin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told reporters Wednesday. “We hope the two sides will properly resolve their differences through constructive dialogue and consultation to ensure the smooth implementation of the treaty.”
There are fears not only of an arms race between Russia and the United States, but also among other nuclear powers, including China.
“I think quite possibly China’s leaders see Putin suspending the new START agreement as … a window of opportunity to accelerate even further its nuclear capabilities,” said Alexander Neill, an analyst with Hawaii’s Pacific Forum.
“Given the predicaments in Ukraine and increasing rhetoric about Taiwan, I think China may feel that this is a window to increase its nuclear capabilities, its nuclear arsenal, and also to align itself more with Russia in terms of nuclear alignment and policies going forward,” Neill told Reuters.
Kinninmont of the European Leadership Network agrees.
“The United States’ biggest concern in all of this is really what happens to China’s nuclear program in the future,” she told VOA. “And although Russia and China are friends, they’re also a bit uneasy about each other. Russia wouldn’t want itself to be eclipsed by China with larger nuclear arsenals.
“But how can anyone make the case to China that they need to limit their program if the U.S. and Russia have no limits on theirs?” Kinninmont asked.