WASHINGTON (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement Tuesday that Moscow is suspending its participation in the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control treaty will have an immediate impact on U.S. visibility into Russian nuclear activities, but the pact was already on life support.
Putin’s decision to suspend Russian cooperation with the treaty’s nuclear warhead and missile inspections follows Moscow’s cancellation late last year of talks that had been intended to salvage an agreement that both sides have accused the other of violating.
In his state-of-the-nation address to the Russian people, Putin said Russia was withdrawing from the treaty because of U.S. support to Ukraine, and he accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of openly working for Russia’s destruction.
The U.S. had previously walked away from the treaty. During the Trump administration, the U.S. declined to engage in negotiations to extend it, accusing Moscow of flagrant violations. But when President Joe Biden took office in 2021, his administration signed a five-year extension.
Here is a look at New START and what Russia’s announcement means for keeping U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons in check:
WHAT IS THE RUSSIA-US NUCLEAR TREATY?
New START, formally known as the The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, was signed by the Obama administration in 2010 and took effect in February 2011 as a 10-year agreement. The treaty obligated both Russia and the U.S. to commit to regular communications on the status of their nuclear arsenals, allow regular on-site inspections and abide by caps on the number of deployed and non-deployed warheads each would maintain.
Those caps include: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and deployed nuclear bombers; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and deployed bombers; 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and bombers.
Hours after Putin’s address, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia would respect the caps on nuclear weapons, even though Putin suspended participation in the pact.
Russia also will continue to exchange information about test launches of ballistic missiles per earlier agreements with the United States, the Foreign Ministry said.
WHAT WILL THE SUSPENSION MEAN FOR NUCLEAR INSPECTIONS, INFORMATION SHARING?
Since New START was signed, Russia and the U.S. have allowed each other’s compliance teams to conduct 328 on-site inspections of their stockpiles, and importantly the two nations have provided data exchanges and 25,311 notifications on the status of their programs, the State Department said.
Putin’s announcement and the subsequent clarification from the Foreign Ministry seemed to indicate the inspections are on a permanent suspension — but they left unclear what data sharing and notifications might be continued.
The U.S. will get its first clues on March 1, the day both parties are supposed to exchange data on the aggregate numbers of their nuclear forces, said Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists.
The U.S and Russia also have been exchanging daily messages on movements and exercises, which has helped keep both nuclear powers clear on the other’s actions, both Kristensen and William Alberque, director for strategy, technology and arms control for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.
“There are notifications that come through every single day,” Alberque said. On the U.S. side, those formatted computer messages are processed by a military-civilian team at the National and Nuclear Risk Reduction Center inside the State Department.
If Russia decides not to provide the notifications, “we’re immediately going to start losing data, to be able to track exactly how many strategic weapons they have, and whether or not they’re in the place that they’re supposed to be, and whether or not they’re acting the way they’re supposed to,” Alberque said.
WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE PUTIN’S ANNOUNCEMENT?
Inspections of U.S. and Russian military sites under New START were paused by both sides in March 2020 because of the spread of coronavirus. The U.S.-Russia commission overseeing implementation of the treaty last met in October 2021, but Russia then unilaterally suspended its cooperation with the treaty’s inspection provisions in August 2022 to protest U.S. support for Ukraine.
Those discussions were supposed to have resumed in Egypt in late November, but Russia abruptly canceled them without offering a specific reason, according to U.S. officials.
In late January, the Biden administration reported to Congress that Russia was not complying with the terms of the agreement by refusing to allow inspections on its territory and refusing to agree to new talks on resuming those checks.
At the time, the State Department said “Russia has a clear path for returning to full compliance” and that all it needed to do was to agree to new inspections.
HOW WILL THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION REACT?
Now it will be up to the Biden administration to decide how to react — whether to continue to comply with the treaty.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Russian move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”
“We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does,” he said. “We’ll, of course, make sure that in any event we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies.”
Last month, the State Department reported it could not certify that Russia was in compliance with New START because of its refusal to allow on-site inspectors last year. Now that the treaty has been rejected altogether by Russia, there’s a risk of an arms buildup.
“Both the U.S. and Russia have meticulously planned their respective nuclear modernization programs based on the assumption that neither country will exceed the force levels currently dictated by New START,” the Federation of American Scientists said in a February report that looked at the risks if the two sides failed to renew the treaty.
“Without a deal after 2026, that assumption immediately disappears; both sides would likely default to mutual distrust amid fewer verifiable data points, and our discourse would be dominated by worst case thinking about how both countries’ arsenals would grow in the future.”