Putin’s Suspension from Nuclear Arms Treaty: Strategic Insights

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The world is undergoing grave uncertainty after Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended his nation’s participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, with the United States on the 21st of February. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty or ‘New START’ has been the last nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation which was signed in 2010 in Prague with the formal name, ‘Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.’ Afterwards being ratified, the treaty came into force in early February 2011 with a view to reducing tensions between the two erstwhile great powers, strategically slacking the proliferation of the nuclear warheads and ensuring their nonuse.

The number of strategic nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia could deploy has been capped by the New START, which was signed by former US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. After US President Joe Biden assumed office, it was lengthened in 2021 for a further five years. This permits both American and Russian inspectors to make sure that both sides are adhering to the deal. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the other sociopolitical milieu, the inspections mandated by the agreement were suspended until March 2020. By that time, Moscow postponed talks with Washington on starting inspections again that were scheduled to take place in Egypt in November, and neither party has chosen a new date that thwarted further development in this regard.

However, Over 90% of the nuclear warheads in the world are owned by Russia and the United States, and both nations have accentuated that any nuclear war or limited war that might incite nuclear war between them must be detoured at all costs. Despite what it dubbed the United States’ harmful attitude to arms control,’ Russia stated earlier this month that it wished to keep the deal in place. Nonetheless, although the treaty is still in effect, Putin giving rise to a dubiousness of using nukes in a limited manner finally halted allowing any inspections and participating in any activity of the treaty amidst the outrageous war between the country and NATO-led Ukraine. While the US is accusing Russia of violating the treaty by nullifying the allowance of inspection in its territory, Putin blamed Washington and argued that some people from there are pondering conducting nuclear tests. Given that, he also instructed Russian Nuclear Corporation and Defence Ministry to be prepared to test Russian nukes when it is necessary. Putin said, “of course, we will not do this first. But if the United States conducts tests, then we will.”

Decoding the Conundrum of Russian ‘Suspension’ and ‘Withdrawal’ of the Treaty

Although Putin unilaterally declared the suspension of participation in the New START, there is a vibrant conundrum regarding the completion of the suspension turning it into a final withdrawal. According to Rose Gottemoeller, a former senior official of the State Department who led negotiations for ‘New START’ during the Obama administration, Russia’s move to ‘suspend’ the pact is of “questionable legality.” She emphasized that ‘the treaty lacks the legal right to do so unilaterally.’ The suspension does not necessarily imply that the contract is over. By contrast, there is another palpable legal room for Russia to legitimize its suspension. However, although the treaty lacks a legal provision or enforcement mechanism for endorsing the suspension, according to the Vienna Convention countries can suspend these kinds of agreements under unusual circumstances.

In this regard, Russia has room to argue and pose a claim as the U.S. regularly assists and maintains communications with Ukraine in the ongoing war. According to another expert named Wolfsthal, ‘as long as Russia limits the number of deployed warheads, its suspension of the pact and the absence of on-site inspections do not yet constitute a significant breach of the accord.’ On the other hand, if Russia increases warheads and conducts nuclear tests going beyond the cap, the US congress and officials may haggle to secure its military and strategic advantage. In contrast, some other analysts argue that it is acceptable for the US to an agreement to claim that the other party’s duties are no longer ‘valid’ since Russia is not complying with the terms of the agreement anymore. However, as one of the crucial parties to the treaty, Russian suspension means that the country is no longer considering the treaty as a binding regulation for nuclear warhead control inferring a ‘pull out’, although Putin argued ‘to abide by the broad strokes of the agreement, at least until its expiration date in 2026.’

A New Beginning of Arms Race between the Great Powers?

After the suspension of participation in New START, the suspicion regarding the proliferation of arms by Russia is provoking a time-testing thought among analysts. The New START Treaty, however, restricted the number of warheads and limited the use of heavy bombers, submarine ballistic missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s assurances on February 21 that it aimed to abide by the general terms of the pact, at least until 2026, it is ambiguous whether Russia’s suspension of New START will usher in the next arms race. However, according to Jeff Edmonds, an erstwhile member of the Obama administration’s National Security Council, Russia has a higher breakout capacity than the United States because it possesses more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the US. Such warheads are made for a battleground and to be used nearby. Nevertheless, Edmonds further argued that the steps to deploy such warheads require more significant expense and it would not make much rationale for Russia to exert the capacity.

Meanwhile, to surpass Russia and China, the United States is updating its nuclear capabilities and gaining more flexibility as it develops new missile types and tubes. Kristensen argued that if the treaty collapses and the conservatives in Congress somehow get consent to proliferate the number of deployed (nuclear) forces, Putin will be more concerned with the American gesture. All these dynamics, however, do not overtly mean that the US and Russia are going to begin a new arms race. Despite the arguments from different scholars, the question that arises here is with whom Russia is going to execute the race. However, although it is to some extent unlikely to see grave arms race in the mature era of arms and military technology as they both hold peer status in this regard, the argument cannot be totally repudiated that they will not conduct the race.

Security Threats and the Possibility of Conducting Nukes by Russia in Ukraine

With the Russian suspension from START, the tension regarding nuclear arms proliferation and deployment has increased to a considerable extent. The security threats are growing wider in this respect, although Putin stated to play by nuclear treaty rules. However, Russia claimed that Washington was shattering the terms of the pact and attempting to undermine Russia’s national security, which is why Moscow decided to suspend the agreement. Moreover, Putin strongly argued that if Washington goes for a nuclear test, Russia will also consider the same as necessary. He said, “….no one should have dangerous illusions that global strategic parity can be destroyed.” Such standpoints might pose security threats to the US and NATO but the possibility of using nukes is less visible till now. Despite Russia’s capability of using nuclear warheads in a limited manner, this would make the Russia-Ukraine war more vulnerable and worsen the situation inducing NATO into an immediate confrontation. Whether NATO will join the party can be another discussion but the matter of using nukes will depend on Putin’s capacity to invest in the war and on the beliefs of his party on his strategy of protracting the war.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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