Amid its ongoing war in Ukraine, and sending nuclear-armed ships to sea for the first time in 30 years, Russia has suspended participation in the New START Treaty, its only remaining nuclear arms agreement with the United States. The move is a harder about face in Russian relations with the West and turns up the heat in tensions between European allies and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
After a year of brutal warfare in which no Russian objectives have been met, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech just hours before U.S. President Joe Biden was set to deliver a speech of his own from Poland. Putin reiterated the false claim that the West started the war in Ukraine while rolling back its nuclear treaty obligations.
The New START Treaty was signed by then-U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in 2010 to cap the number of strategic nuclear weapons each country can deploy. It took effect the next year and remained in effect until 2021, when it was extended by President Biden for the next five years. The terms of the treaty allow for either countries’ nuclear inspectors to ensure compliance with treaty obligations.
Terms of the agreement limit both countries to 1,550 nuclear warheads and a maximum of 700 long-range missiles and bombers. Each can inspect the other’s nuclear sites up to 18 times per year. After inspections were put on hold during the COVID-19 Pandemic, talks to resume the inspections were supposed to move forward in November 2022, but were postponed. Russian and American nuclear weapons account for 90% of the world’s total nuclear arsenal.
Even Vladimir Putin has previously shown a dedication to ensuring nuclear weapons aren’t accidentally used in combat, but the war in Ukraine and Putin’s determination to defend what he calls Russia’s “territorial integrity” – including captured Ukrainian territory – has led to fears he might use a nuclear attack to break the stalemate there.
American and Russian nuclear arms agreements date back more than 50 years, to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (also known as SALT I and SALT II). SALT I led to President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signing the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in Moscow in 1972. Talks continued and Brezhnev signed the SALT II agreement with President Jimmy Carter in 1979, but the U.S. Senate never ratified the agreement due to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan.
Talks continued through the administration of President Ronald Reagan, however. Reagan ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviet Union through the proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. SDI was a missile defense program that would develop anti-missile lasers, particle beams and other undeveloped technology to protect against ICBMs. Dubbed “Star Wars” it was both too far ahead of its time and costly.
Since the Soviet economy could not keep up with such a program, it pushed the USSR to enter the START I agreement in 1991. The START agreements would limit the number of nuclear warheads deployed by Washington and Moscow along with their delivery systems, including missiles and bombers. START would have been implemented in three phases, but START II was never ratified, so START III was never negotiated. That’s what led Obama and Medvedev to sign the New START agreement.
Putin’s recent speech and news of Moscow’s suspension of its participation in the New START Treaty was generally well-received in Russia, though he was criticized for not talking about Russian setbacks in Ukraine, according to the New York Times.