The Russian Nuclear Horn’s Madness: Daniel 7

The Method Behind Putin’s New START Madness


  • FEBRUARY 28, 2023

Source: Getty

Summary:  Russia’s decision to abandon the treaty is not so much bowing to the inevitable as trying to get ahead of it.

    The announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia would suspend its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) brings an unwelcome degree of clarity to a situation the United States almost certainly would have to face three years from now. With his move, Putin has effectively killed bilateral U.S.-Russian arms control. New START will almost certainly have no successor when it expires in early 2026. The United States and Russia will then find themselves without any formal means of managing their nuclear standoff. Both sides, as well as China, will be worse off as a result, though Russia will most likely suffer the most of the three.

    Eugene Rumer

    Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.

    Negotiated by former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration in 2010 and entering into force in 2011, New START capped U.S. and Russian arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons for ten years and contained a provision for extending it for another five. To ensure compliance with the treaty, the two sides agreed on a robust verification regime. The extension provision was exercised by the two sides, with the new expiration date in February 2026. There is no provision in the treaty to extend it again beyond that date. U.S. and Russian delegations began discussions about a successor treaty in 2021, but they were halted after Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022.


    Barring some dramatic move by Moscow to rapidly boost is strategic nuclear arsenal, which no one has predicted, the immediate effect of the Russian announcement on the strategic balance between Russia and the United States is not going to be appreciable. Even Putin’s harshest critics have not suggested that Russia is about to break out of the treaty and achieve strategic nuclear superiority over the United States. The Russian foreign ministry has issued a statement clarifying that Russia does not intend to breach the treaty’s caps on weapons and will continue the practice of notifying the U.S. side about missile launches. Prior to Putin’s announcement, the State Department had already declared Russia as not complying with the treaty’s verification provisions because of its refusal to allow U.S. inspections of nuclear facilities in Russia. The loss of on-site inspections and possibly other verification and transparency measures would complicate U.S. efforts to monitor Russian strategic nuclear forces. It would result in greater reliance on the so-called national technical means of verification, or satellites and radars, and probably some loss of confidence in the findings due to the cutoff of at least one stream of data.

    The decision to suspend participation in New START is the latest example of Russia’s a la carte approach to treaty compliance. Unlike the United States, which pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019—both actions allowed by the terms of these treaties—Russia apparently prefers to violate treaties when it suits its interests rather than withdraw from them formally. In 2007, Russia suspended its implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty—an action not permitted by its terms and therefore a violation. Russia formally withdrew from that treaty only in 2015. In 2014, the State Department reported that Russia had violated the INF Treaty. Russia denied the accusations and in 2017 proceeded to deploy the banned missiles. Russian government operatives have used nerve agents against regime renegades and opponents in violation of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Convention. This makes for a poor record of Russian compliance with international obligations. Until recently, Russian adherence to New START terms was a notable exception to that pattern. Not anymore.

    Even if U.S. and Russian negotiators could somehow sign a treaty to succeed New START, it would almost certainly not be ratified by the U.S. Senate, where even the original had faced strong opposition. Russia’s record of treaty violations would be a formidable barrier to a successor treaty or even a nontreaty politically binding agreement.

    Besides, the Kremlin shows no inclination either to return to compliance with New START or negotiate a successor. That was clear even before Putin’s announcement. In a lengthy interview with the Russian daily Kommersant in late January, Sergey Ryabkov, the foreign ministry’s top official for U.S.-Russian relations and arms control, conditioned Russia’s return to compliance with New START on the United States accepting Russian demands for security guarantees presented at the end of 2021 as the Kremlin’s terms for not attacking Ukraine. Just as the bar was set then deliberately too high for the United States to comply and keep Russia from attacking Ukraine, so it is now for Russia to return to the negotiations table. In other words, it will not happen.


    What is likely to be the reason behind Putin’s announcement? The decision to abandon the last remaining bilateral arms control treaty and open doors to an unrestricted, unregulated arms race with the United States probably was not taken without considering its gravity. Putin has been described as impulsive, and it may be tempting to explain his decision on New START as a response to President Joe Biden’s Kyiv visit. But nuclear saber-rattling has been a recurrent feature in official Russian rhetoric. The New START decision is likely to have been a deliberate, calculated move.

    Several potential explanations come to mind, chief among them are the threat perceptions of Russia’s national security establishment and the long-standing factors shaping them. The all-out assault against Ukraine a year ago was the turning point after which relations with the West transitioned into an open-ended confrontation. The failure to achieve a quick victory in Ukraine has resulted in an untenable situation for Russian national security planners long accustomed—even in the missile age—to relying on strategic depth as their margin of safety, a hedge against threats traditionally emanating from the West. After a year of brutal fighting, Donbas has become Russia’s soft underbelly. Ukraine has become the most threatening, hostile, irreconcilable enemy on Russia’s western frontier. Russia’s modernized, vaunted conventional forces have been dealt a severe blow by a combination of Ukrainian heroism and U.S. weapons. Russian nuclear saber-rattling is intended at least in part to compensate for that.

    Moreover, as the United States and other NATO countries supply Kyiv with more advanced weaponry, Ukraine’s and NATO’s ability to hold parts of the Russian heartland at risk reignites Russian military planners’ long-standing concern about the fundamental asymmetry between the United States and Russia. In a war in the European theater, the United States can hold the Russian heartland at risk, but Russia cannot hold the U.S. homeland at risk without tapping into its strategic nuclear arsenal. It appears unlikely that these considerations were not part of the calculus underlying Putin’s decision to abandon arms control and move toward what promises to be an unrestricted nuclear arms race with the United States.

    Other factors undoubtedly also drove Putin’s decision. Russia has always had a powerful nuclear lobby, unhappy with the deep cuts in the country’s nuclear arsenal since the end of the Cold War. Its arguments against nuclear arms reductions have been reinforced by long-standing concerns in Russia’s strategic community about U.S. plans to develop and deploy defenses against ballistic missiles. The ABM Treaty had effectively banned such defenses. The U.S. withdrawal from it in 2002 was criticized by the Russian national security establishment as intended to enable the United States to launch a disarming first strike against Russia. Concerns about U.S. missile defenses and the resulting U.S. ability to achieve superiority over Russia and the capability to launch a disarming first strike are reflected in Putin’s repeated statements that new Russian weapons can overcome all U.S. defenses.

    Another related and likely factor behind Putin’s decision is the reported buildup of Chinese strategic nuclear weapons. Amid growing tensions between the United States and China, Russian strategic planners may have concluded that after New START’s 2026 expiration, the United States will respond to China’s buildup by increasing its offensive systems beyond the New START limits, as well as its missile defenses. In that case, even if China’s buildup is not the primary concern for Russian strategic planners, the expansion of U.S. offensive and defensive capabilities would indeed be a major worry for them. According to this logic, the decision to abandon New START and future prospects for arms control is not so much bowing to the inevitable as trying to get ahead of it.

    Putin also possibly moved to “suspend” Russian participation in the treaty—rather than withdraw from it outright—as a public relations ploy designed to avoid the blame for abandoning arms control. If the Russian move is intended to bait the United States to abandon the treaty in response, it is unlikely to work, since the Biden administration, unlike its predecessor, has made clear its commitment to arms control; has been restrained in its reaction to Putin’s announcement; and is most unlikely to walk into his trap, if that is what it is.


    Notwithstanding these potential rationales behind Putin’s decision, no matter how one looks at it, Russia is likely to be worse, not better, off. His decision follows in the footsteps of his disastrous war against Ukraine that has been a major blow to Russia’s position in Europe, so it is perhaps part of a pattern rather than a departure from it.

    The end of bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control will not benefit anyone. A new arms race is fraught with unnecessary military expenditures and increased risks of a catastrophic escalation. Moreover, with China reportedly well on the way to building up its nuclear arsenal, the bilateral arms race could well become trilateral, with many additional risks and complications, most of them not immediately apparent but likely to manifest themselves over time.

    This is where the correlation of forces does not appear to favor Russia, and in fact is heavily skewed against it. In the absence of arms control, in the trilateral U.S.-China-Russia dynamics, Russia is likely to be the worst off of the three, considering its bleak economic outlook, constraints on access to advanced technologies, and the burden of waging the war in Ukraine. Over time, the pace of that dynamic is likely to be set more by the U.S.-China than U.S.-Russia competition. In order to keep up, Russia could find itself repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made during the Cold War by engaging in a military standoff with the United States and its allies, and—by default, this time—with China. Putin’s blunders are positioning Russia to relive that chapter.

    What does it mean for the United States? Admittedly, it is early to fully appreciate the significance of Putin’s announcement. It makes no sense for the United States to abandon New START before its expiration and take the Russian bait. The treaty does not impede ongoing U.S. modernization programs, and there is no reason to hand Russia the opportunity to engage in public relations posturing and accuse the United States of giving up on arms control. To the contrary, it makes sense to hold Russia publicly to its pledge to stay within the treaty’s limits, to monitor its compliance with all remaining available means, and publicize its further noncompliance should there be any. It also makes sense to encourage global public opinion, especially Russia’s strategic partners China and India, to condemn the Russian move.

      The three-way nuclear arms race will be aggravated by the addition to the mix of advanced conventional, hypersonic, and cyber weapons. For the policy and analytic communities, the challenge of thinking through the dynamics, implications, and ways to deal with this set of challenges beyond simply adding more weapons looms large.

      Finally, Putin’s decision to suspend New START is only the latest in a series of actions throughout his presidency that make no sense to policymakers and analysts in the West: the 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, the “no limits” junior partnership with China, the violation of the INF Treaty that gives the United States a free hand to target the Russian heartland from up close, the annexation of Crimea that pushed Europe to start rebuilding its military muscle after decades of post-Cold War euphoria, and the all-out war against Ukraine—a disaster that has made Ukraine Russia’s enemy No. 1 and Russia a rogue nation run by war criminals. To Western eyes, these actions all run counter to Russian interests and must be driven by a different and elusive rationale. As the guardrails of U.S.-Russian relations fall away, and as nuclear saber-rattling has become a common feature of the biggest war in Europe since World War II, understanding that rationale is more important than ever before.

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