What are the implications of the Russian Federation’s suspension of obligations under the new START treaty?
At least officially, arms control can be viewed on life support. The action is the latest in a series of moves that serves to weaken the arms control agenda, a trend started under Bush 43 with the withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and followed by Trump’s withdrawal from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) in 2017. The move comes in response to complaints from the Biden administration that the Russian Federation was failing to meet its inspections obligations under the new START framework. In suspending participation in the treaty, the Russian Federation has officially ended weapons inspection, a cornerstone of arms control.
Yet the Russians have claimed that the move will not lead to violations in other areas of the treaty. Specifically, the cap of 1,550 strategic warheads will remain in place and Russia will continue to inform the US of changes in deployment of their strategic arsenal. In effect, Russia is objecting to the inspections of Russian facilities, but not to the overall substance as laid out in the treaty. It’s worth keeping in mind that Russia did not withdraw from the treaty, opting to suspend its activities instead; presumably with an eye towards a future where resumption of all obligations can be renegotiated.
In the short term, then, obligations will be met sans inspections. But for how long? In 2020 TASS reported the successful use of an ABM interceptor in a test. Russia had likewise been accused of violations of INF prior to the US (and Russian) pullouts from the treaty. New START sunsets in 2026, and with heightened tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation, violations to the treaty are a real and present threat. The development of hypersonic missiles by the Russian Federation poses the threat of a renewed arms race that incorporates missiles both by the Russian Federation and the United States of a new and more deadly class. Historically, the development of ever deadlier weapons led to arms control agreements between the US and the Soviet Union that served the world well. Maybe threat escalation will lead to threat reduction as then and so now. Yet in an increasingly multipolar landscape, where China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, any negotiation will be markedly more complex than was the case during the Cold War. And with the lethality of weapons ever increasing, the threat of thermonuclear nuclear war grows ever greater.