On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend its participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits the number of strategic warheads and launchers that can be deployed by the U.S. and Russia. This is the last remaining arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, a consequence of violations by Moscow of every other accord to limit nuclear weapons.
While it is certainly a sign of Putin’s desperation to suspend New START, as the treaty was only ever a limit on U.S. nuclear weapons, the U.S. should not chase Russia back into compliance and should use Russia’s suspension as a wake-up call to get serious about the coming trilateral nuclear competition (in which Russia and China have already demonstrated how seriously they believe in the power of nuclear weapons).
In 2021, President Biden agreed to extend New START through 2026 despite the treaty’s many flaws, including its failure to constrain Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons, and despite the Trump Administration’s progress in pursuing an improved deal with Russia that would also have brought pressure on the People’s Republic of China.
After more than 12 years, it is clear the treaty did nothing to constrain Russia’s nuclear weapons. Indeed, Russia may have been violating the central limits of the treaty’s prohibition on deployment of strategic nuclear weapons, according to the leaders of the three national security committees in the House of Representatives.
While some so-called experts will lament the loss of data exchanges and inspections made possible by the treaty (which Russia had been blocking for two years), it’s worth remembering that the U.S. intelligence community likely has tremendous insights into Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, as it does Russia’s conventional military and plans. In other words, the U.S. is unlikely to lose visibility into Moscow’s capabilities.
The unilateral nature of New START also meant that the Russians could actually grow their strategic nuclear force to reach the central limits of the treaty (up to 1550 strategic deployed nuclear warheads and up to 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles) while only the U.S. was obligated to reduce its nuclear forces.
Likewise, it became clear during the initial ten years of the treaty that Russia had been able to exempt from New START the bulk of its nuclear modernization program. According to a May 2019 public statementfrom the U.S. Intelligence Community, Russia had built up an enormous capability of non-deployed strategic nuclear warheads, which are completely exempt from treaty limits and can deploy whenever Moscow chooses, and Russia “possesses up to 2,000 such non-strategic nuclear warheads not covered by the New Start Treaty.”
Indeed, 10 years after New START was ratified, Russia’s advantage under the treaty was so profound that, according to then Secretary of State Pompeo “[o]nly 45 percent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is subject to numerical limits…[m]eanwhile, that agreement restricts 92 percent of America’s arsenal” because of the “dozens...already deployed or in development” so-called “non-strategic”, or “tactical”, nuclear weapons exempted from the treaty.
And for the first time, a nuclear breakout involves two peer rivals, not just one. The most recent annual China military power report of the Department of Defense was replete with alarm concerning that country’s nuclear weapons breakout. For example:
The Needed Wake-up Call
Russia’s decision confirms the axiom that arms control isn’t needed when you can get it, and when you need it, you can’t get it. In response to Putin’s latest provocation, which was apparently coupled with a failed launch of Putin's latest multi-warhead heavy ICBM, the Sarmat, the U.S. must focus on strengthening its nuclear deterrent and preparing to compete with Russia, if necessary, as well as China. The United States should take the following steps.
The temptation will be for the United States to seek to convince Russia to return to compliance with the New START treaty. The United States cannot want Russian compliance more than Russia does. The appropriate response is for the United States to confront the world as it is and make the tough calls to be positioned to compete at the dawn of a three-way nuclear competition.
There is something worse than the United States lagging behind the respective nuclear forces of Russia and China: the United States lagging behind the cooperating nuclear forces of Russia and China.
This paper is a product of the Forum for American Leadership’s Arms Control and Counterproliferation Working Group.
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