Bluffs and Fear: What Are Putin’s Goals in Suspending the Latest Nuclear Arms Pact with the US?

Moscow is suspending participation in the most recent nuclear treaty with the U.S. against the backdrop of the year-long unprovoked war in Ukraine. Why did Vladimir Putin do that?

Russia has stopped participating in the latest nuclear arms treaty with the U.S. — the world’s second-largest nuclear power after Russia.

The announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin became the headline from his annual speech on the state of the nation, made three days before the one-year anniversary of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

The question is: So what?

The Kremlin’s actions should not be surprising — Washington has already stated that Russia is not following its obligations regarding strategic arms limitations. Additionally, Moscow has threatened Ukraine with nuclear strikes on various occasions since the start of the war.

The question of whether Putin is bluffing again, or whether the West has given him legitimate grounds for concern, surged to the top of the agenda despite the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ claim that the decision is “reversible” and despite Putin’s own clarification that Russia is not withdrawing but only ceasing to participate in the treaty.

Radio Free Europe Bulgaria assembled military experts’ opinions regarding the meaning behind Moscow’s actions and what one should expect.

What Is New START?

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed in 2010 by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. It entered into force in 2011; 10 years later it was extended until February 2026.

Its purpose is to reduce the number of strategic nuclear missiles. The treaty required both the U.S. and Russia to:

-Regularly exchange data on the state of their nuclear arsenals.

-Allow regular, on-the-spot inspections.

-Comply with the limits on the number of deployed and non-deployed warheads that each country may support.

The treaty’s requirements limit each country to no more than:

-700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers.

-1,550 nuclear warheads of deployed missiles of both types as well as bombers.

-800 launchers for missiles and bombers, both deployed as well as those that are not combat-ready.

The treaty includes another important mechanism for control — a bilateral advisory commission that may be convened to resolve disagreements and any issues related to the agreement and its implementation.

“The entire system was created in 1991 and began working in 1994 when the START-1 treaty came into force. All the objects that fall within the scope of the treaty were very well known, and there were no secrets,” said Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher specializing in arms control and disarmament with the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.

Why Has Russia Discontinued Participation?

Russia claims that it will continue to honor the treaty’s restrictions even after it stops participating in it. This is, however, difficult to prove. On-site inspections were suspended by mutual consent in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has been trying to resume them since last year, but Russia has refused.

Earlier this month the U.S. accused Moscow of abandoning its obligations under the treaty and refusing to allow inspections on Russian territory. The State Department said that “Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.” Later on, in Putin’s Feb. 21 speech, the Russian president accused the West of failing to fulfill its obligations under the agreement.

Podvig believes that data is not currently being exchanged, at least on Russia’s part, and that the work of the bilateral commission will be suspended and on-site inspections will cease.

Andrey Baklitskiy, senior researcher at the Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, told The Guardian that “Russia will probably stick to the New Start treaty limits,” but that it will “be harder for the U.S. to verify compliance only using the national technical means.” He believes that Russia’s decision has positives as well: The decision “is political and can be easily reversed if the overall political relations change.”

“The problem, of course, is that there is no change of political relations in sight,” Baklitskiy concluded.

Is This a New Model for Russian Nuclear Policy?

In the past year Putin has repeatedly said that Russia is willing to use its nuclear arsenal if the country’s territorial integrity is threatened. This is despite no indication of such a threat today — no one has declared war on Russia since 1941 when Adolf Hitler’s Germany invaded the USSR.

“Why would we want a world without Russia?” Putin asked in 2018. In September 2022, when he announced partial military mobilization in the country, he added that if Russia’s territorial integrity is threatened, “We will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people — this is not a bluff.”

The suspension of participation in the New START treaty with the U.S., against the backdrop of such rhetoric, raised the question of whether the Kremlin’s policy regarding its nuclear forces has had an overhaul.

Podvig said, “It could be worse” and “there is nothing unexpected in this decision.” The reason is that “arms control and disarmament is a political process that reflects the current state of mutual relations.”

Moscow’s decision, according to Podvig, has deprived Russia of a tool through which it can show the U.S. and the rest of the world that it is keeping its promises to limit strategic weapons.

“That tool is now gone and accusations against Russia will undoubtedly come. And when they do, Russia will not be able to respond substantially. In this sense, the decision to suspend the treaty was not properly considered,” Podvig added.

The purpose of suspending the pact, according to experts Fiona Hill and Thomas Graham, who spoke to The Guardian, is partly related to domestic politics in the U.S.

“It’s playing to all those people who want Ukraine to surrender and capitulate to avoid a massive nuclear exchange and world war three, a kind of nuclear armageddon,” said Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Russian specialist with the White House National Security Council from 2017 to 2019.

The decision’s goal is to provoke “certain circles in the U.S. to wonder whether the risks of supporting Ukraine are worth it,” said Graham, a Russia director in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.

Putin’s intention is to “unsettle NATO allies and stoke fears of broader war because he is losing in Ukraine. Does not mean we have to take the bait but allied coordination more important than ever,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a special assistant for National Security Affairs to former President Obama.

Russia has the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world after inheriting the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. According to the Federation of American Scientists, by 2022 Putin controlled about 5,977 nuclear warheads. President Joe Biden controls 5,428.

About 1,500 of Russia’s warheads are set to be retired but are likely still intact. Another 2,889 are in reserve and about 1,588 are on alert. Of those that are combat-ready, about 812 are deployed on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and about 200 on heavy bomber bases, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The U.S. has about 1,644 strategic nuclear warheads on alert. According to the Federation of American Scientists, China has a total of 350 warheads; France, 290; and Britain, 225. With such an arsenal, both Moscow and Washington could destroy the world several times over. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s nuclear warheads reached 40,000, and the U.S.’ about 30,000.

Of the weapons that can be used to launch nuclear warheads, Russia has about 400 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles, which, according to the organization Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, can carry up to 1,185 warheads. The Kremlin also has 10 nuclear submarines that can carry up to 800 warheads, as well as 60 to 70 nuclear bombers.

According to Russian nuclear doctrine, the Russian president is the final leader in making decisions about the use of nuclear weapons. He has the “nuclear briefcase” which can be used to communicate with top military leadership and finally, with missile troops. It is believed that the Russian Minister of Defense, currently Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, also have such briefcases.

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