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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Putin’s move on nuclear treaty may signal end to formal arms control

President Vladimir V. Putin said Russia would pull back from New START, the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States. The U.S. State Department had previously said Russia was not compliant in the agreement.

By David E. Sanger

When President Vladimir Putin announced at the end of a 100-minute speech earlier this week 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 the latest sign that the decadeslong era of formal arms control may be dying.

Putin made clear that he was not pulling out of the treaty, which expires in February 2026. And hours after the speech, Russia’s Foreign Ministry declared the country had no intention to deploy more strategic nuclear arms — the kind that can soar across continents — beyond the limits of the treaty, which keeps both sides to 1,550 nuclear weapons. That set aside, at least for the next few years, the prospect of a resumed arms race between the two largest nuclear powers.

But the chances are rapidly diminishing that the United States and Russia, in the midst of the bitter war in Ukraine and mutual recriminations on a scale not seen in decades, can find their way to sit down to negotiate a replacement treaty, much less agree to one. And Putin’s declaration that he will block U.S. inspectors from verifying treaty compliance made clear, once again, that he views his nuclear arsenal as a key element of power as he tries to revive his stumbling effort to take over a nation whose right to exist as an independent state he refuses to acknowledge.

He is also retreating from New START at a critical moment. China has made clear it is determined to build an arsenal the size of Washington’s and Moscow’s. International inspectors have now discovered new evidence that Iran is making rapid progress in making near-bomb-grade nuclear fuel. North Korea spent the weekend testing its own intercontinental ballistic missiles. Every sign indicates the world may be on the verge of a new era of nuclear breakout.

More broadly, Putin sounded like a leader who was done with arms control after years of suspended inspections because of the pandemic and then as confrontations with the United States and NATO escalated.

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.

It was a reminder of how fragile the scant remaining restraints on nuclear weapons worldwide appear, 14 years after President Barack Obama, in a signature speech in Prague, called on all powers to work toward “a world without nuclear weapons.” While Obama acknowledged he might not see that day in his lifetime, it seemed, for a brief while, that the major nuclear powers were on a path to shrinking their arsenals — and relying less on nuclear weapons for defense and deterrence.

That day appears over, at least for the foreseeable future.

“With Russia breaking treaties, China building up, North Korea testing missiles and Iran now close to weapons-grade uranium, it is a bad period for nuclear stability and restraint,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a senior adviser to Global Zero, a group that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons, and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Wolfsthal, who worked for President Joe Biden when he was vice president and then for Obama’s national security council on arms control, said he feared Putin’s declaration, although more a political declaration than a military one, “is likely to stoke the growing calls for the U.S. to expand its nuclear arsenal to both compete with Russia and show China they cannot catch us.”

Even before Putin spoke, implementation of the New START treaty was already in deep trouble; the State Department announced last month that the Russians were out of compliance. But Tuesday, the Russian leader made clear that the United States could now forget about inspecting Russian nuclear sites, a central element of verifying compliance with the treaty’s mandates.

Not surprisingly, Putin argued that he was forced into his decision by the U.S. action. “They want to inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on us,” he said, picking up a phrase that U.S. officials have used to describe their desired outcome for Russia in the war against Ukraine, “and climb on our nuclear facilities.”

He also noted 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. (Those attacks happened, although they appear to have done limited damage.)

He said he wasn’t about to allow inspectors to survey nuclear 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 Putin did again Tuesday, that the United States was not living up to its inspection requirements either. (U.S. officials insisted several months ago that they have resolved access issues and would allow in Russian inspectors, as long as American inspectors had reciprocal rights.)

The United States retains considerable visibility over the Russian arsenal, chiefly with satellites that keep track of Russia’s nuclear movements. But there is a deeper worry. The five-year extension of New START that Biden and Putin agreed upon in the first month of the Biden presidency is the only one permitted under the agreement, which was negotiated during Obama’s tenure.

That means an entirely new treaty would have to be pieced together. And while U.S. officials insist they want to negotiate a new agreement, 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 Biden and Putin agreed upon in June 2021, at their only face-to-face meeting as presidents, started off with a promising dialogue.

The two sides agreed, briefly, to talk about traditional arms control and what to do with “novel” weapons, including a range of new nuclear devices under development by Russia. The Russians, in turn, want limits on what the United States calls “upgrades” to its own weapons. But those discussions never got off the ground; they were suspended after the invasion of Ukraine.

Second, trust between the two countries is virtually nonexistent. Putin and Biden have not spoken directly in more than a year. In the ensuing time, Biden has described the Russian leader as a war criminal, and Putin has called the American president the aggressor in Ukraine. In private, U.S. 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 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 only between Moscow and Washington no longer makes sense to many 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 U.S.’ and Russia’s 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 Blinken said Tuesday, after 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.”

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.”

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