Reckless escalation or emotional own goal?


Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in disarmament treaty could be as bad for Russia as for the rest of the world

In a major state-of-the-union address in Moscow on February 21, Russian president, Vladimir Putin said: “I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”

International reaction was swift, most of it condemnatory, but some also cautioning that it may contain more bluster and implicit threat than a true escalation.

Putin was referring to the New START Treaty, first signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010. (See headline photo/ Commons).

The treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia may deploy and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them. The treaty was renewed in 2021 for another five years.

Specifically, New START sets out limits, which so far both the United States and the Russian Federation have met or remained below. They are: 

  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
  • 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
  • 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

Suspending participation is in itself a violation of the treaty. Russia has arguably already been out of compliance with the treaty by refusing to allow weapons inspections.

Peace and disarmament groups decried Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the treaty. The US-based Arms Control Association called the decision “reckless” and warned that it “increases the chances of a global nuclear arms race.” 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons tweeted that “Suspending implementation of New START represents a dangerous and reckless decision from President Putin – Russia must immediately return to full compliance with the agreement and continue to adhere to warhead limits.”

The UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament condemned the Putin’s decision “as a dangerous escalation of nuclear risk” and “a devastating blow that makes the world hugely less safe.”

Derek Johnson, Managing Partner of the Global Zero movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, called Putin’s move “madness” and one that puts the world “one step closer to nuclear chaos”, but cautions that “the US and NATO must do all they can to reduce the danger of nuclear escalation, and remain both calm and coordinated in their collective response to Putin’s reckless announcement.”

There were already concerns in some circles as to what might happen should the treaty not be renewed again when it next expires in 2026. “If New START is not followed by a new treaty by the time it expires in 2026, there will be no limits on US and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the 1970s,“ wrote Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in April 2022.

But some saw Putin’s announcement as the desperate bluster of a leader backed into a corner as his war against Ukraine fails to materialize in a quick victory for Russia. Just as Putin has hinted he could use nuclear weapons, threatening a new arms race could equally be seen as an attempt to pressure the US and NATO against continued financial and military support for Ukraine.

Furthermore, any benefit to Russia from stepping away from the treaty is highly questionable. Doing so, tweeted Matt Korda, a senior research associate at FAS, was “a massive own-goal by Putin. Russia benefits from New START just as much as the United States. This decision is clearly political and emotional, not strategic.”

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