Reckless or rhetoric?

Was Russian premier threatening a new arms race or warning the West off Ukraine?

By Linda Pentz Gunter

In a major state-of-the-union address in Moscow on February 21, Russian president, Vladimir Putin said: “I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.”

International reaction was swift, most of it condemnatory, but some also cautioning that it may contain more bluster and implicit threat than a true escalation.

Putin was referring to the New START treaty, first signed by then presidents Obama (US) and Medvedev (Russian Federation) in Prague in 2010. The treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia may deploy and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them. The treaty was renewed in 2021 for another five years.

Former US President Obama and then Russian President Medvedev, signed the New START Treaty in Prague in 2010. (Photo: Commons)

Specifically, New START sets out limits, which so far both the United States and the Russian Federation have met or remained below. They are: 

  • 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
  • 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
  • 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.

Suspending participation is in itself a violation of the treaty. Russia has arguably already been out of compliance with the treaty since well before the invasion of Ukraine, by refusing to allow weapons inspections since 2020 and refusing to join arms control talks under the terms of the treaty since 2021.

A number of peace and disarmament groups decried Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the treaty. The US-based Arms Control Association called the decision “reckless” and warned that it “increases the chances of a global nuclear arms race.” 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons tweeted that “Suspending implementation of New START represents a dangerous and reckless decision from President Putin – Russia must immediately return to full compliance with the agreement and continue to adhere to warhead limits.”

The UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament condemned the Putin’s decision “as a dangerous escalation of nuclear risk” and “a devastating blow that makes the world hugely less safe.”

Derek Johnson, Managing Partner of the Global Zero movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, called Putin’s move “madness” and one that puts the world “one step closer to nuclear chaos”, but cautions that “the US and NATO must do all they can to reduce the danger of nuclear escalation, and remain both calm and coordinated in their collective response to Putin’s reckless announcement.”

There were already concerns in some circles as to what might happen should the treaty not be renewed again when it next expires in 2026. “If New START is not followed by a new treaty by the time it expires in 2026, there will be no limits on US and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the 1970s,” wrote Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) in April 2022.

An unarmed U.S. Air Force LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launch. (Photo: Vandenberg Air Force Base/Wikimedia Commons)

But some saw the announcement as the desperate bluster of a leader backed into a corner as his war against Ukraine fails to materialize in a quick victory for Russia. Just as Putin has hinted he could use nuclear weapons, threatening a new arms race could equally be seen as an attempt to pressure the US and NATO against continued financial and military support for Ukraine.

Furthermore, any benefit to Russia from stepping away from the treaty is highly questionable. Doing so, wrote Matt Korda, a senior research associate at FAS, was “a massive own-goal by Putin. Russia benefits from New START just as much as the United States. This decision is clearly political and emotional, not strategic.”

This viewpoint is certainly supported by the framework within which the New START suspension was offered — a torrent of sometimes wide-ranging invective directed against the West, and laden with homophobia and other prejudices.

Choosing to step away from the last treaty actually signed by and still in place between nuclear powers and that could go some way toward preventing the greatest tragedy the world might ever know, is an illogical reaction, if Putin wants the world to believe his flimsy assertion that Russia was led unwillingly into the current war and is not the aggressor here.

Of course, that playground who-started-it debate is one that will likely rage eternally, at times bizarrely uniting some usually polarize political perspectives. But it does nothing to address the here and now and how best to achieve the peace that Putin alleges he was aiming for all along. Nor does stepping away from START.

Putin also made reference to nuclear testing, saying that Russia would not resume testing as long as the US did not. While the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted by the United Nations in 1996 and bans all nuclear explosions, it has never gathered enough ratifications to enter into force. However, neither the US nor Russia has tested nuclear weapons since that date. Or at least, not in the way described by the treaty.

The workaround is to test nuclear weapons in a controlled laboratory environment. This is what the US was doing last December when, despite all the fanfare around the so-called fusion breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility (NIF), claimed as an energy game-changer, that nanosecond achievement and the work around it is all about ensuring nuclear weapons readiness.

As physicist, M.V. Ramana explained it: “NIF’s chief purpose is not generating electricity or even finding a way to do so. NIF was set up as part of the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program, which was the ransom paid to the US nuclear weapons laboratories for forgoing the right to test after the United States signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This is a purpose NIF can start fulfilling without ever generating any electricity.” The NIF is housed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California.

And, as Mark Christopher Herrmann, program director for Weapon Physics and Design at Lawrence Livermore, told Scientific American in an October 2022 article, while they hope nuclear weapons will never be used, “we want to assure our allies that we’ve got their backs and make sure our adversaries know that if they ever need to be used, they will work as intended and have devastating consequences.” 

“Need to be used.” This is the thinking that persists in the halls of power, where nuclear weapons can be discussed in terms of need and use without the slightest pang of humanitarian conscience as to what that would actually mean. It’s all clinical, theoretical, calculating. And cold.

As Dr. Ira Helfand of Back from the Brink and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War so chillingly reminded us during his recent presentation, even in a so-called “limited” nuclear conflict, using between 100 to 250 bombs ranging between 15 to 100 kilotons, you would see between 25 to 125 million dead. That is what “using” nuclear weapons means.

“Using” as many as 500 weapons of 100 kilotons each would see 64 million direct fatalities and 2.5 billion left without food 24 months later.

The scale of such a catastrophe is by turn both terrifying and numbing, motivating some to action and leaving others feeling both helpless and hopeless.

New START isn’t really the answer. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is. But while nuclear nations persist on “needing” nuclear weapons and threatening to “use” them, that threat must be reduced using every tool available. New START is one of them. It’s anybody’s guess how you get Vladimir Putin to a negotiating table right now. On anything. But all efforts must be made to mend this broken branch, even though sadly, it does not belong to an olive tree.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and curates Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo of Vladimir Putin by Presidential Executive Office of Russia/Wikimedia Commons.

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