No matter how fraught – no matter how big the stakes – there was always an unwritten agreement between Russia and the US that nuclear weapons policy and arms control accords were decided on the basis of security not internal politics.
No longer. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, cornered and desperate after his calamitous invasion of Ukraine, has signalled that nuclear weapons are now a political tool.
To help accomplish the conquest and destruction of his neighbouring state, Putin is threatening the use of battlefield nuclear weapons in order to appease nationalists at home and sow doubts in the minds of European nations. The most recent manifestation of this strategy was Putin’s announcement on Saturday that he was putting battlefield nukes in Ukraine’s northern neighbour and Russian vassal state, Belarus – even if some military experts have suggested Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons could be easily picked off by Nato forces, and in their rickety state, might even be unusable.
More ominous perhaps, was his decision in February to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Shelving the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty with the US, does not improve Russian security. Quite the opposite. It threatens to unsettle the delicate nuclear balance that has kept an uneasy peace between the nuclear superpowers.
And Putin knows this. In the past two decades he has demonstrated a shrewd understanding of arms control.
Back in 2000, Putin expressed his support for the strategic arms reduction process in a speech to Russian scientists. Referring to the earlier arms control treaty talks START II and START III, Putin said he sought stability in order to “make our world safer and reduce the excess of weapons”.
As recently as 2021, Putin demonstrated this commitment when, together with US President Joe Biden, he agreed to a five year extension of New START beyond its original 10-year lifespan.
In the intervening years Putin successfully argued for the reduction in US defensive missile capability that would have rendered Russia’s nuclear arsenal less effective.
But now security experts fear Putin’s announcement in February on NewSTART could prove to be a nail in the coffin of hopes for international multilateral nuclear disarmament – the key process designed to reduce the risk of nuclear war.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that with Putin’s decision “the whole arms control architecture has been dismantled”. Although, some observers have detected a chink of light in the fact that Russia’s ambassador to Vienna, Dmitry Lyubinsky, perhaps Putin’s most influential adviser on nuclear policy, has stressed that Russian participation in NewSTART has only being suspended not cancelled.
If Russia simply continues to suspend weapons inspections, then not much changes, because such checks have effectively been on hold since the start of the Covid pandemic. But if Putin’s announcement means there will be no more launch notifications, this is more dangerous, because it could lead to any number of misunderstandings during missile tests.
Rose Gottemoeller, who served as chief US negotiator of NewSTART, thinks the most immediate impact of Putin’s announcement will probably be an end to Russia upholding its side of the agreement to notify Washington each time nuclear-capable missiles are moved, maintained, decommissioned, or put into storage.
“The implications are serious for predictability for the United States, but—and this is what is so puzzling about this—it’s equally serious for Russia,” she told Foreign Policy. “How are they expecting to plan for their nuclear operations in the future if they don’t know what’s going on in the US strategic nuclear forces?”
Apparently, in his desperation to win a war he never needed to start – and save his own skin – Putin is prepared to play with nuclear fire.
Arms control expert Amy Nelson at the Brooking Institute says Putin “has turned NewSTART into a prop in his propaganda machine. While he fully comprehends strategic stability and the potential risks of fully withdrawing from NewSTART, Putin will continue to play an arms control game with rules all his own. And the United States will have to adapt”.
But how? This is the $64,000 dollar question.
For now, the Biden administration will hopefully make clear that it will continue to observe NewSTART’s limits in missile numbers and continue to provide the data and notifications required, in order to calm tensions and make it easier for Russia to rejoin the treaty.
The prospects for arms control have rarely looked as bleak, however. Russia is now sending uranium to China, so that it builds its nuclear arsenals to levels comparable with its chief global competitor, the US. Several smaller nations, such as North Korea and Iran have, or are on the verge of having nuclear weapons.
The global nuclear threat was never going to disappear completely. But fresh thinking and skilled diplomacy to prevent or at least slow a new arms race has never been needed more urgently.
Michael Day is i’s Chief Foreign Commentator