Russia‘s Withdrawal from New START
The End of a Cold War Relic, but Not the Beginning of a New Nuclear Arms Race
Following US President Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv, Russian President Putin announced on 21 February 2023 the withdrawal from the New START Treaty – the last bilateral nuclear disarmament treaty in force. Even with this treaty in force, more than twelve thousand nuclear warheads remain in the arsenals of nuclear weapon states. This next step of escalation in a newly emerging East-West conflict – even if it does not increase the nuclear threat in the world – demonstrates the obsolescence of this Cold War relic. This article explains the historical context of bilateral nuclear arms treaties and their decline over the last two decades. It then argues that, for geopolitical and economic reasons, a new nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States is rather unlikely.
A Brief History of Bilateral Nuclear Disarmament Treaties
The debate on nuclear disarmament is as old as the atomic bomb itself. The very first resolution of the UN General Assembly– adopted on 10 January 1945, less than six months after the first and only use of atomic bombs in Japan – called for nuclear disarmament. This call has been regularly reiterated. The goal of nuclear disarmament was even included in the most important instrument of international law dealing with nuclear weapons, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As part of a grand bargain, non-nuclear weapon states refrain from developing or acquiring nuclear weapons (Art. II) in return for both receiving technical assistance for peaceful uses of nuclear energy (Art. IV) and a promise of nuclear weapons states (NWS) of nuclear disarmament (Art. VI). In addition, 186 countries signed the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which aimed at prohibiting nuclear weapons testing. Finally, in 2021 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force.
While these instruments either never entered into force (such as the CTBT) or are ignored by the NWS (such as their obligation under Art. VI NPT or the TPNW), the greatest progress has been made in limiting the arsenals of the two Cold War superpowers. The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated how the world was on the brink of a nuclear war. In 1970, there were almost 40,000 nuclear warheads, all of which capable to destroy the planet several times over. Following the adoption of the NPT, the Soviet Union and the US concluded several nuclear arms control treaties in the 1970s. These agreements focused on specific types of missiles, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM-Treaty), the two Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreements (SALT I in 1972, SALT II in 1979), or the 1978 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF-Treaty). Despite these treaties, the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal quadrupled before its dissolution in 1990.
Following a new spirit encouraged by the end of the Cold War, new agreements were concluded in the 1990s. In 1992, Russia and the US signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). START I was the first treaty to comprehensively address all types of strategic nuclear weapons and resulted in the elimination of about 80% of the world’s strategic nuclear stockpiles. Although START II – which further limited certain types of nuclear weapons – never entered into force, nuclear disarmament continued with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). The latest progress was made in 2010 with the signing of New START, the treaty in question which further limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads.
The Slow Death of Bilateral Nuclear Arms Control
While eight bilateral agreements have been successfully negotiated, none of them is still in force. While some of them were limited in time (such as START I, which expired in 2009), others were superseded by newer treaties (such as SORT, which was superseded by New START). However, the withdrawal from these treaties has often been used as a political tool in tensions between Russia and the US. In 2002, the US under the Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty. In 2019, the US under the Trump administration withdrew from the INF Treaty after alleged violations by Russia. In addition, the New START Treaty almost expired in February 2021 and was extended at the last minute in one of the first acts of the newly elected Biden administration.
In a speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on the eve of the first anniversary of the invasion, Russian President Putin announced that Russia was suspending its membership of the New START Treaty. This announcement – designed to shock the West and to raise fears of a nuclear war – followed US President Biden’s unprecedented surprise visit to Kyiv the day before. Russia’s withdrawal from New START now finally puts to grave the progress of bilateral nuclear disarmament initiated by the experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis more than 60 years ago. While a conflict over this treaty already emerged in 2022 after Russian verification inspectors were unable to enter the US due to visa restrictions following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Russia’s latest announcement puts the final nail in the coffin of bilateral nuclear disarmament.
A New Nuclear Arms Race in the Making?
The absence of international treaties regulating nuclear arsenals raises the question of whether a new nuclear arms race could be triggered. While a new arms race between Russia and the US seems unlikely, the multipolar distribution of power in the world keeps the risk of a nuclear war alive.
First, the threat of a newly emerging arms race is limited by Russia’s rhetoric: although Russia has announced its withdrawal, it has pledged to abide by the limits imposed by the New START Treaty until it expires in 2035. This announcement suggests that the withdrawal is more of a political sign to Washington and the West rather than a new start to an arms race. This is especially true given the enormous costs associated with not only maintaining but also expanding a nuclear weapons arsenal. Russia, targeted by international economic sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine, is already struggling to maintain its conventional stockpile. Given Russia’s current economic state, it seems unlikely that the necessary resources would be available. Similarly, in absence of Russian action to increase its stockpile, economic considerations render a US-American nuclear build-up equally unlikely.
Second, the idea of limiting the threat of a nuclear war through bilateral treaties is a remnant from the Cold War and has been proven wrong in recent years. While during the Cold War, two NWS (France and UK) were close allies of the US, it was (and still is) inconceivable that they could be deployed without the involvement of the US. Moreover, other NWS were and are focused on their regional conflicts, such as Pakistan, India, and Israel. The risk of China using nuclear weapons was limited by a strict no-first-use-policy, isolationism from international disputes and a limited stockpile. However, the Chinese situation has changed dramatically in recent years. China has significantly expanded its nuclear arsenal from around 250 nuclear warheads, a near-constant number for 40 years until around 2015, to more than 400 today. It is feared that China seeks to increase its stockpile to around 1,500 weapons by 2035. This number is significant when compared to the US and Russia, which each have about 5,500 to 6,000 nuclear warheads. In addition, China is emerging as a new superpower that is becoming more involved in international affairs. This can be seen, for example, in the recent affair with the spy balloon in US airspace, the discussions about possible arms supplies to Russia, or the ever-increasing tension over the status of Taiwan. The nuclear threat associated with this multipolar world is not addressed by bilateral treaties between the US and Russia.
Third, one can even question the security benefits of the existing nuclear arms control treaties. Even with the existing instruments, both Russia and the US possess almost 12,000 nuclear warheads. Together they are more than enough to destroy all major cities and plunge the Earth into a nuclear winter, wiping out all life on the planet.
Despite Russia’s announced withdrawal from the New START Treaty, a new nuclear arms race between Russia and the US is not to be expected. Putin’s announcement should be seen as a political signal, while economic reasons prevent Russia from expanding its nuclear arsenal. However, given China’s aspirations to challenge the US as a superpower, backed by a build-up of its nuclear arsenal, New START alone as a bilateral treaty between Russia and the US is far from the reality of a multipolar nuclear order. Due to the current geopolitical and diplomatic crises and despite the NPT’s obligation for nuclear superpowers to engage in nuclear disarmament negotiations, a revival of nuclear disarmament treaties between the US and Russia, or with China cannot be expected in the foreseeable future. The world is left to trust that non-legal issues are sufficient for nuclear weapon states not to engage in a nuclear arms race because international law in its current state is unable to help. However, the immense political, diplomatic, and environmental costs make at least the use of nuclear weapons relatively unlikely.