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New START, Russia, nuclear weapons

Quit Playing Games with New START

Putin’s adventurism threatens nuclear arms control.

Words: Jessica Sleight
Pictures: Viktor Hesse
Date:

On Monday, Aug. 8, Russia announced it was suspending inspections of its nuclear weapons facilities established under the US-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) — the last remaining agreement limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. Russia blamed US sanctions-related travel restrictions, saying resumption would “give the United States unilateral advantages and deprive Russia of the right to carry out inspections in the United States.” While it’s unclear how much more of an issue Russia will make of this, it is clear that this can and should be resolved quickly.

On-site inspections, which have been on hold since April 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are an important tool for both Russia and the United States in verifying adherence to New START, which places equal limits on both sides’ nuclear arsenals.

The agreement allows for up to 18 short-notice on-site inspections per state party, per year. Building on past treaty monitoring and verification regime best practices and ongoing research, inspectors are able to confirm the number of warheads Russia and the US declared to have on an individual missile by physically counting without revealing sensitive technical information. To avoid having to count every warhead on every missile — a cumbersome process that would put foreign inspectors at missile sites for prolonged periods — the inspecting country selects the missile to be checked at random.

In addition to providing valuable insights, inspections provide a cooperative touch point that builds confidence and increases transparency, especially beneficial in times of tension. It would also serve as a (very specific) line of communication on nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent US suspension of bilateral strategic stability talks.

There are reasons to be optimistic about a resolution. Russia characterized the suspension as “temporary” and continues to abide by other key transparency and verification aspects of the agreement, namely notifications of nuclear weapons movements and exchange of information on the status of their nuclear forces. For its part, the Biden administration has said it is committed to treaty implementation, and even ready to start negotiating a treaty to replace New START when it expires in 2026.

THE RISKS

Politics, however, could make things tricky. Russia-US relations today are arguably as politically fraught as they were during the Cold War, if not more, and relations are unlikely to thaw as long as Russia continues its war against Ukraine. But using this dispute as a political tool would only undermine necessary cooperation on nuclear arms control, something both countries have prioritized even in times of great tension. US travel and visa restrictions were put in place as a direct response to Putin’s war and Russia’s violent atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. Russia needs to stop blaming the United States for a consequence of Putin’s coercive nuclear adventurism and get to work on finding solutions with US counterparts.

US intelligence should be seen as a complement, not a substitute, for on-the-ground inspections.

If Russia-US relations fail to move beyond finger-pointing, it would damage New START and risk the treaty crumbling altogether and, with it, decades of cooperation on nuclear arms control. US policy leaders, including ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), have already jumped on Russia’s suspension to criticize arms control efforts at large. While treaty implementation is a responsibility of the administration, every obstacle fuels opposition among conservative hardliners, making future treaties more difficult to pursue.

For critics, Russia’s announcement underscores the argument that arms control is unwise because the United States cannot trust Russia. Nevermind the fact that both states have complied with New START limits and multiple monitoring and verification mechanisms exist precisely so as not to simply take Russia at its word. Additional complaints that the agreement is unfair because it does not include all Russian nuclear weapons, or that China is not part of the agreement can be boiled down to letting the perfect stand in the way of the good. For one, Russia and the US possess over 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, each with around ten times that of China’s arsenal. China wasn’t meant to be included in New START, but that doesn’t mean the US can’t take every available opportunity to pursue engagement with China on nuclear risk reduction and arms control. For another, New START places equal limits on both Russian and US arsenals. Instead of trashing all restraints, Russia and the US should use New START as a basis to build a follow-on agreement that includes all nuclear weapons.

These criticisms are exactly what makes dialogue, agreements, and the monitoring and verification regimes they establish necessary. Bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as New START, continue to be in the best interest of US national security, and the best vehicle for verifiably limiting nuclear arsenals and preventing a nuclear arms race. Without insights gained from New START verification methods, both the United States and Russia would be left to rely on intelligence. And while US tools are sophisticated and robust, when the opportunity is available, they should be seen as a complement, not a substitute for on-the-ground inspections.

A CALL TO RESUME INSPECTIONS

Relying on national means alone can lead to nuclear decision-making based on worst-case assumptions of what the other side is up to. The reality is dialogue and arms control agreements are not a friendship bonus for US allies. Rather, they are valuable tools borne of serious, detailed negotiations for states to reduce nuclear risk, build transparency and confidence, and prevent an unconstrained arms race.

Arms control and treaty implementation in a time of deep mistrust and ongoing conflict, even if indirect, is difficult enough. If this issue is left to fester, prioritizing diplomacy domestically, and moving diplomacy forward abroad will become even harder. Time will tell whether this is a genuine, momentary blip in US-Russia arms control relations, an excuse to hold up inspections, or a play by Russia to extract a political win for Putin.

Whichever the case, both Russia and the United States need to resolve this issue quickly and resume inspections.

Jessica Sleight (she/her) is a Partner for Policy, Strategy, and Partnerships at Global Zero, the international movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Her work focuses on nuclear strategy, risk reduction, and pathways to disarmament.

Jessica Sleight

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