A historic nuclear treaty between the two largest nuclear arms powers, the US and Russia, is in jeopardy. President Putin is suspending Russian cooperation in the so-called New Start agreement, he said in his big speech.
With this decision, the Russian president is increasing the pressure on Washington, Kyiv and Brussels. It is bad news, NATO countries and experts agree. It’s another step up the escalation ladder, and with that there’s a greater chance of human error with potentially catastrophic consequences.
But there is also uncertainty about what will actually change. Because a few hours after Putin’s speech, the Kremlin announced that Russia will continue to exchange information with the US about testing ballistic missiles. Moscow also claims it will continue to abide by limits on the number of nuclear weapons.
American inspectors have not been welcome to check Russian nuclear weapons for almost three years. Experts also see a bright spot in the fact that Putin is only suspending the treaty for the time being. This leaves the door ajar to return.
According to official figures, the thirteen-year-old agreement has been observed by both nuclear powers. Both Washington and Moscow had reduced their nuclear arsenal below the agreed numbers in 2018, The Washington Post reports. Nevertheless, the two world powers together are estimated to still own about 90 percent of all nuclear bombs.
Under the treaty, the US and Russia are each entitled to 18 inspections per year of the other, Reuters writes. But since the outbreak of the corona pandemic in 2020, there have been no inspections. Bilateral talks to resume controls have been postponed.
In August last year, the Kremlin suspended cooperation because of the war in Ukraine. And now Putin is going a step further by temporarily stopping the treaty.
‘Fog gives Putin space’
“This will lead to much less insight into what Russia is doing. That ‘fog’ gives Putin more room to maneuver,” says Han Bouwmeester, associate professor of military strategy at the Netherlands Defense Academy.
Since the beginning of the war, Putin has repeatedly implicitly threatened the option of using nuclear weapons. In addition, the president has repeatedly said that the Kremlin will only do this if Russia’s survival is threatened. In any case, nuclear weapons are mainly intended as a deterrent, because their use has enormous consequences.
The provisional withdrawal from New Start makes it more difficult to monitor what Russia’s nuclear units are doing. Still, experts estimate that the US will almost certainly find out if such units are put on alert. For example, intelligence services have determined with the help of satellite images that Putin was bluffing when he claimed in February last year that nuclear weapons units had been put on high alert.
By shedding the treaty indefinitely, Russia could theoretically develop more nuclear weapons. But that is not what the Kremlin says it intends to do.
“We continue to watch closely to see what Russia is actually doing,” said US Secretary of State Blinken. He calls Putin’s move “very unfortunate and irresponsible”.
In any case, Russia says it will continue to honor part of the New Start agreements. In that respect, the situation could have been worse, tweets Andrey Baklitskiy, nuclear expert of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. “But we are on a sliding scale,” he says on Twitter. “Only God knows where we will end up.”
Tomorrow the Russian State Duma will consider Putin’s bill. The State Duma is expected to take a decision on whether to suspend the treaty immediately.
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