Vladimir Putin has suspended Russia’s participation in a key nuclear deal. What could this mean for the world?

Key points
  • President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Washington.
  • Experts say that while this undermines efforts to limit nuclear arsenals, it does not immediately increase the risk of war.
  • Former US President Barack Obama signed an agreement in 2010 with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russia’s move away from a key arms control treaty is a blow to efforts to limit nuclear arsenals, experts say, but does not immediately raise the risk of nuclear war.

President Vladimir Putin They added what should be understood as yet another attempt to put pressure on Western countries supplying Ukraine with weapons and money to fight the Russian invasion.

Former US President Barack Obama signed an agreement in 2010 with then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and the US sees it as part of a closer relationship with the Kremlin.

After being renewed in 2021, it will operate until 2026.

Joe Biden standing on the podium

President Joe Biden delivers a speech marking the anniversary of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine in Warsaw’s Royal Castle Garden. Source: AARP / Evan Vucci

The agreement limits former Cold War rivals to a maximum of 1,550 deployed offensive strategic warheads each, about 30 percent less than the limit set in 2002, and 800 launchers and bombers.

Mr. Putin told an audience of political elites that while Russia is pulling out of the treaty, it is not actually breaking the deal.

What do the experts think?

“New START is not dead, but in an artificial coma,” said Emmanuelle Maitre of the Foundation for Strategic Studies (FRS), a think tank in Paris.

“This kind of treaty works on the basis of political will, and it is clear that there is no more of it,” she told AFP.

While Mr. Putin is the latest leader to cripple arms control and non-proliferation efforts, he is not the first.

In 2002, the United States under President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) after 30 years.

During the Trump presidency, Open Skies Agreement on Airspace Surveillance and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty).

Marc Fino, a former diplomat and now vice president of IDN, the French association that promotes nuclear disarmament, said “we should not over-dramatize” Mr. Putin’s move.

“It’s a way to put pressure on the United States and NATO and part of an ongoing strategy of increasingly aggressive threats,” he told AFP.

“But this is not a strategic naval change. The Russian doctrine remains the same.”

Attempts to “Keep Fear Low”

Since the start of Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has hinted at the possible use of nuclear weapons, prompting lively protests in Western capitals.

“You feel like he needs to bring this issue up regularly to fuel his legitimacy and keep the level of fear low in Western countries,” Ms Mater said.

But “this does not mean that Russia intends to build up its arsenal.”

The New START agreement has been causing problems for some time, mainly due to problems with inspections that were halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

US President Joe Biden tried to resume monitoring visits, but they did not happen.

Beyond the scope of the treaty, Russia’s suspension of START “is proof of how much relations between Moscow and Washington have deteriorated,” said Colin Clark, head of research at the Soufan group, a US think tank on international security.

Tuesday’s move, he said, was simply the latest manifestation of the “life-support” US-Russian relationship.

While Mr. Putin may not have been referring to a strategic reset of Russia, Ms. Maitre said, some in the Washington political establishment may see the suspension as an opportunity to restructure and possibly increase the American arsenal in the coming years.

Analysts believe the announcement could have far-reaching implications in a world where the US-Russian nuclear duopoly has become a distant memory.

“Given Iran’s steady move towards possession of nuclear weapons, the state of nuclear proliferation and growing instability should be of concern to policymakers around the world,” Clark said.

‘Very strong pressure’ on nuclear disarmament, some say

Meanwhile, some observers are hopeful that renewed concerns about nuclear stockpiles could give new impetus to proponents of nuclear disarmament.

“This could cause very strong pressure in favor of multilateral negotiations,” Mr. Fino said.

Especially since China, a rising nuclear power, has become more assertive.

“Even before the closure of New START, there was a three-way arms race between China, Russia and the United States,” said James Acton of the American think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said a strike on New START “could accelerate this competition,” but that would also depend on whether Russia continued to abide by the terms of the treaty during its suspension.

Russia said on Tuesday it would continue to abide by the restrictions of the nuclear treaty despite its suspension.

“Russia intends to adhere to a responsible approach and will continue to strictly comply with the quantitative restrictions on strategic offensive weapons provided for by it (New START) during the life cycle of the treaty,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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