But the Kremlin “doesn’t actually want an arms race” with Washington, experts say.
Amy MackinnonAugust 9, 2022, 5:44 PM
In a surprise announcement on Monday, Russia suspended inspections of its nuclear arsenal by the United States, saying it was unable to properly conduct reciprocal assessments of U.S. facilities under the New START agreement because of sanctions and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement is not expected to have any immediate practical repercussions, as inspections under the arms control treaty have been suspended since early 2020 because of the pandemic. But the public announcement and timing, coming midway through a United Nations nonproliferation conference and at a time of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions, left experts scrambling to read the tea leaves as to what may have prompted the announcement.
Russia may have valid concerns over reciprocal inspections, but it may also simply be grandstanding as its war in Ukraine drags into its sixth month. “It’s not clear to me whether Russia wants the issue, or whether it wants the solution,” said James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Many bilateral disputes on technical issues such as arms control and inspections regimes would be handled privately, but Russia’s public declarations make it seem as if it wants to further rile tensions with Washington.
“Part of the reason for being a bit pessimistic in this situation is that the fact that Russia has raised this publicly makes me worry a bit that it wants the issue,” he said.
An announcement posted on the Russian foreign ministry website on Monday said that a ban on commercial Russian air travel to the United States, as well as visa restrictions and the closure of European airspace to Russian flights imposed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine in February, had inhibited Russian inspectors’ ability to travel to the United States.
“We would like to underscore that these measures are of a temporary nature. Russia is fully committed to observing all measures within the New START treaty, which is, in our eyes, the most important instrument for maintaining international peace and stability,” the statement read.
Moscow may have decided to air its grievances in public regarding the site inspections in a bid to force a resolution. “I don’t think the Russian complaints are crazy,” Acton said. “The test that I’ve always applied is, would we be complaining if the shoe was on the other foot? And the answer is probably yes.”
The New START pact came into force in 2011, and, following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, it is the last bilateral arms control agreement in place between the Cold War foes, though both sides are party to ongoing talks for a fresh Iran nuclear deal. The agreement caps the number of long-range nuclear missiles each country can deploy and allows for up to 18 onsite visits per year. While Moscow has signaled that it will suspend access to its nuclear weapons facilities, the Russian authorities have been diligent in sending routine notifications each time one of their missiles is moved for maintenance or modernization, a transparency measure agreed upon under the treaty.
“They have been very, very good in the months since the invasion in fulfilling their other New START implementation requirements, which include sending the U.S. regular notifications of their weapons system movements,” said Rose Gottemoeller, who was the chief U.S. negotiator of the treaty.
“I take seriously that they said in their announcement that this is by no means the final word, that they want to continue working on this,” she said.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials and anchors on state television have routinely made veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine or beyond. Despite the incendiary rhetoric, experts agreed that behind closed doors Moscow is quietly committed to nuclear arms control. “My impression has always been that the Russian government really valued New START. For all Russia’s bluff and bluster, it doesn’t actually want an arms race with the United States,” Acton said.
Still, even as experts are optimistic about the long-term arms control forecast, Russia’s action is another blow to nuclear talks between the superpowers, one of the Biden administration’s top foreign-policy priorities, which have taken a body blow since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last summer, U.S. President Joe Biden had initially hoped to resuscitate wide-scale arms control talks with the Russians, known as the Strategic Stability Dialogue. The idea was to find a successor to New START, which expires in 2026, as well as cover novel weapons systems, such as cyberweapons. New START does not cover a host of new Russian nuclear weapons systems first unveiled by Putin in 2018, such as nuclear-powered cruise missiles and air-launched ballistic missiles.
But the talks quickly began to nosedive as the Kremlin drumbeat for war with Ukraine grew louder in the closing months of 2021. American officials familiar with the talks said that Russia began to use the talks to score points outside of the lane of arms control, including to air long-standing grievances about NATO’s military posture in Europe.
In the hours after Putin announced the official recognition of the self-declared pro-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the U.S. State Department curtailed the multitrack arms talks for the foreseeable future. Some celebrated the move as the U.S. administration closing off a lane for Moscow to gain policy leverage over Washington; the Obama administration also temporarily froze arms control talks with Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. In the months since, Russia has increased its nuclear finger-wagging, suggesting it could deploy nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Belarus, which sits on the northern border of Ukraine, and it staged drills of its nuclear forces near Moscow, in a saber-rattling move that unnerved policymakers in Washington.
“It seems that the deterioration of relations between the U.S. and Russia got to the point where nothing is safe,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher with the weapons of mass destruction program at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research. “In retrospect it was somewhat naïve to expect that business as usual will continue regarding the New START when everything else from cooperation on the International Space Station to the work at the U.N. was falling apart.”