Russia Suspends New START and Increases Nuclear Risks

In a lengthy and fiery speech on February 21, 2023, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The announcement came after months of Russian delays and cancellations, to include inspections and consultative meetings. It also followed an announcement on January 31, 2023, by the U.S. State Department that Russia was in violation of New START. The suspension of New START further contributes to the demise of arms control, and it also eliminates one of the few remaining forums for dialogue between Moscow and Washington at a time of rising nuclear risks. 

Suspending New START is just the latest in a larger trend of Russia’s increasing reliance on nuclear weapons. Vladimir Putin is telling the world who he is. He is a nuclear bully, attempting to use nuclear weapons to deter conventional Western support and intervention in Ukraine. He is intentionally increasing nuclear risks, believing that NATO members have a lower risk tolerance than Moscow and do not care enough about the fate of Ukraine to escalate their involvement and the war. Regardless, these risks are real and growing, especially in the absence of crisis communication channels.

Q1: Why did Russia suspend participation in New START? 

A1: New START requires the United States and Russia to hold 18 on-site inspections per year. As of January, the United States and Russia had conducted 328 inspections under the treaty. Inspections were put on hold during the pandemic, but as international travel resumed, Russia continued to stall on restarting inspections. In August 2022, Russia paused inspections under New START, claiming the United States attempted to conduct an inspection without prior notice and that “existing realities” with the treaty created “unilateral advantages” for the United States. In late 2022, Russia announced it would postpone participation in the Bilateral Consultative Committee (BCC). The January 2023 State Department report concluded, “In refusing to permit the United States to conduct inspection activities on Russian territory, based on an invalid invocation of the ‘temporary exemption’ provision, Russia has failed to comply with its obligation to facilitate U.S. inspection activities, and denied the United States its right to conduct such inspection activities.”

There are short-term and long-term reasons for why Russia suspended participation in New START. In the short term, Russia was likely hoping to use New START as leverage against the United States to convince Washington to stop supplying military aid to Ukraine. The longer-term reasons are that Putin is relying on Russia’s strategic arsenal to backstop regional ambitions and is using arms control as another means of trying to shift blame to the West for the worsening geopolitical environment. Russia has been quick to accuse Washington of undermining New START. Senior Russian diplomat and New START negotiator Anatoly Antonov explained, "We have warned that arms control cannot be isolated from geopolitical realities. In the current circumstances we consider it unjustified, untimely and inappropriate to invite the US military to our strategic facilities.” Abandoning arms control is part of Putin’s modus operandi. Russia also suspended participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007, and in 2014 was found to be in non-compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Q2: Will the United States stay in New START? 

A2: In an immediate response to Russia’s suspension of New START, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained, “I think it matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area. It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.” This suggests the United States will continue to abide by the New START limits and pursue arms control and other risk reduction measures, even without a willing partner in Moscow.

Maintaining this course will be a challenge. On the one hand, the administration committed to “a renewed emphasis on arms control, non-proliferation, and risk reduction to strengthen stability, head off costly arms races, and signal our desire to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons globally.” On the other hand, in the face of expanding Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals and the absence of arms control, the Biden administration will likely face growing internal pressure to break out of New START and expand its arsenal. This pressure may be justified by forthcoming nuclear guidance from the Pentagon and thinking within the administration about how to deter two peer competitors, and what that means for arms control.

Q3: How will Russia's suspension of New START impact the war in Ukraine? 

A3: Putin’s announcement could impact the war in Ukraine in three ways. First, it could indicate that Russia will expand its strategic arsenal and break out of New START limits. At present, Russia needs drones and personnel more than it needs nuclear warheads, but its missile production includes dual-capable systems, such as the Kh-101 cruise missile. While these missiles would not have been covered under New START, they show that Russia has open missile production lines and remains capable of expanding its strategic arsenal despite Western sanctions and the ongoing war. Putin’s announcement shows Russia is doubling down on nuclear bullying in the war in Ukraine.

Second, arms control is part of Moscow’s wider disinformation campaign to portray the United States and NATO as the aggressors in Ukraine. For example, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused the United States of canceling planned strategic stability talks for November 2022 in Cairo; however, according to a press release by members of Congress, the U.S. delegation showed up for the meeting in Cairo while Moscow canceled at the last minute. It will be important for the United States and NATO to continue to provide evidence challenging Russian disinformation, lest it undermine alliance unity and support for Ukraine.

Finally, suspending New START essentially silences one of the few remaining forums for dialogue between Washington and Moscow. The war in Ukraine has increased awareness of the risks of nuclear use and the need for crisis communication channels. While Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is known to have reached out to his Russian counterpart, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, these talks occur on an ad hoc basis and do not afford the transparency and predictability that comes with arms control

Q4: Is arms control dead? 

A4: There is a lingering, though unlikely, chance Russia will return to New START, resume inspections and meetings of the BCC. But whether the United States and Russia revive New START, negotiate a new agreement, or resort to informal risk reduction mechanisms, the future of arms control is perilous. First and foremost, there is a lack of trust on both sides. Moscow’s record of non-compliance will be difficult to excuse. But also, Moscow has consistently accused the United States of refusing to “play fair” in New START and blames Washington for the breakdown of New START. In August 2022 when Russia announced it would end inspections, Lavrov excused ending inspections because, he alleged, the United States was responsible for worsening relations: “We are essentially branded as enemy, there’s no trust there and they say it openly to us.” He continued, “So, in these conditions, if they see just one important thing about this treaty—which is let us come and take a look—then it’s not very fair, I think.” And in response to the State Department compliance report, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated, “We see that all of Nato’s intelligence infrastructure, including reconnaissance aircraft and satellites, is working 24/7 in the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian regime. This all creates extremely specific conditions which are hostile for us and must take into account.”

But as the CSIS Project on Nuclear Issues has repeatedly argued, arms control is not dead, but it should adapt. As the United States pursues a strategy of integrated deterrence, it should also pursue integrated arms control. This new vision for arms control may look very different from arms control of the past, with more flexibility and agility to respond to a changing geopolitical landscape, and incorporating new actors and technologies. For now, though, this vision seems quite distant, and Putin’s decision to suspend New START should be recognized for the dangerous nuclear bullying that it is. 

Heather Williams is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Director, Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Fellow, International Security Program