One of the main geopolitical scandals of the past week was Vladimir Putin’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in an agreement with the United States that essentially controlled the nuclear arms race. Focus understood what this meant and whether the President of the Russian Federation received a new trump card for blackmailing the civilized world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the Treaty with the United States on measures to further reduce and limit strategic offensive arms (START-3). A return to it, according to Putin, is possible if the ambitions of France and Great Britain, the European countries with nuclear weapons, are understood. Thus, the Kremlin again wants guarantees from the term it coined – the “collective West”. Also, the Russian president was indignant at NATO’s request to comply with the terms of the agreement and allow Western experts to enter strategic facilities.
Why Putin decided to withdraw from the START-3 treaty
“Some kind of theater of the absurd. The West is directly involved in the attempts of the Kyiv regime to strike at our strategic aviation bases. Now they want to inspect our defense facilities,” Putin said.
The Russian President stressed that the goal of the US and NATO is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. He went on to urge the Russian military and Rosatom to prepare for possible nuclear weapons tests.
When announcing the withdrawal from START-3, Putin, without knowing it, announced an innovation. The terms of the START-3 treaty do not imply a unilateral suspension of its operation. Part 3 of Article 14 allows the parties, in the exercise of state sovereignty, to withdraw from the agreement.
“Each party … has the right to withdraw from the treaty if it decides that exceptional circumstances have endangered its supreme interests,” the text of the document says.
An option for Russia is the use of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of May 23, 1969, which allows the suspension of an agreement or its termination in the event of a material breach of the transaction by one of the participants. Putin did not mention this document.
START-3 Treaty – what is its essence?
A new treaty between Moscow and Washington on the mutual reduction of nuclear weapons entered into force on February 5, 2011. At the time of signing, the parties determined the validity period for 10 years, and in January 2021 the contract was extended until February 5, 2026.
Each country participating in START-3 has pledged to have a limited amount of equipment and ammunition capable of carrying a nuclear charge. In numbers it looks like this:
700 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and bombers; 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads on ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers; 800 launchers for ICBMs and SLBMs.
The START III treaty limits Russian-deployed intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, including ICBMs, that can reach the United States in about 30 minutes. The conditions apply to the Avangard and Sarmat missile systems.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) for 2022, Russia possessed the world’s largest stockpile of tactical and strategic nuclear warheads – almost 6,000 units.
The infographic shows stocks of tactical and strategic warheads. Data prepared by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
The U.S. has a slightly lower 5,428 warheads, followed by France and the UK (290 and 225). Iran is on the way – enriched uranium up to 84%. Only 6% is not enough to create nuclear weapons, the IAEA noted.
How are weapons checked under the START-3 treaty and can they be hidden?
Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Ryabkov pointed out that the START-3 treaty stipulates 18 arms checks per year on each side. Russia and the US have created all the mechanisms to keep track of the increase in nuclear potential. To get around them, one must clearly violate the rules of the game, the Foreign Ministry explained.
The US State Department confirmed the openness of the Russian Federation and the permission of American representatives to monitor its implementation of all obligations under the START. The Kremlin also said in 2021 that the extension of the treaty ensures “the predictability of the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States” and “corresponds to the national interests” of the country.
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On January 21, 2021, Putin signed the law on the extension of START. Then he said that the agreement meets the national interests of Russia, preserves the predictability of strategic relations between Russia and the United States, and will contribute to the development of the nuclear disarmament process.
Arms checks have not been carried out since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then because of Moscow’s decision due to the “effect of what is happening in Ukraine.” Russia, according to Ryabkov, wanted to send a “political signal” to the United States and announced the postponement of consultations. The American newspaper The Wall Street Journal, citing a State Department report on January 31 this year, for the first time wrote about Moscow’s violation of the terms of START-3 and the rejection of Washington’s requests for meetings to discuss this issue.
In September 2022, Russia notified the United States that it had 1,549 warheads, but without the permission of inspections, the States were unable to confirm the data. Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation Konstantin Kosachev called this statement “unfair and deceitful” and said that the Americans were the first to violate their obligations
Russia is changing “nuclear relations” with the United States
American experts in a conversation with The Wall Street Journal said that Russia’s withdrawal from START-3 would not have dramatic consequences in the short term, but did not bode well for the future.
“Putin warned about the possibility of a complete withdrawal from the treaty. In this case, there will be colossal changes that will catastrophically reduce US nuclear security. Russia will switch from nuclear missiles with a single warhead to missiles with multiple warheads,” said Sergey Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies.
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The size and composition of the British and French nuclear arsenals have not changed since the signing of the START-3 treaty, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.
According to the expert, out of the 5,977 nuclear warheads mentioned above, Moscow has short-range tactical ones that can hit targets at a distance of up to 70 kilometers. These shells are not subject to START-3.
The main consequence of Putin’s move, Daryl Kimball sees as an obstacle to attempts to conclude a subsequent agreement after the expiration of START in February 2026.
“For the first time since 1972, there will be no new agreement to limit the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia,” he said.
John Wolfsthal, former senior adviser on arms control and nonproliferation at the US National Security Council, agreed with Kimball.
“Details matter, but if Russia does stop sharing data and notifications, it will fundamentally change nuclear relations with the US. The US still has ample opportunity to monitor Russian nuclear forces even without a valid treaty. Moscow’s withdrawal from the agreements will increase uncertainty and likelihood misunderstandings, heighten the perception of the threat and accelerate the arms race.” wrote he’s on twitter
The Guardian writes that Russia will adhere to the terms of START-3 for some time, but it will become more difficult for the United States to verify data using existing technical means.
“One of the pluses is that Russia’s decision is political in nature. It can be easily canceled with a warming of relations with the States. And now the problem is that no changes are expected in the political relations of the two countries in the near future,” the publication quotes a comment by a senior researcher for weapons of mass weapons programs. destruction of Andrey Baklitsky, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
Nuclear weapons expert James Acton, in an interview with Der Spiegel, argues that the risk of using nuclear weapons increases if arms control is suspended. The United States and Russia will no longer share information about arsenals – this will complicate the process of verification of compliance with START-3.
Acton believes that Russian nuclear testing is real as a leverage against the West, with a clear loss in the war in Ukraine.
“The nuclear arms race began before the suspension of START-3. Moscow’s withdrawal will accelerate the course of events – the strategic arms race will be between the three superpowers: Russia, China and the United States,” the analyst comments.
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo focuses on the Joe Biden administration’s concerns about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in the coming months. Putin’s decision to withdraw from the agreement has less priority
Arcano Partners fund manager Bjorn Beam says the START withdrawal fits in with the Kremlin’s saber-rattling policy.
“Until now, this policy has made a lot of noise about nothing, at least in the field of atomic weapons. Biden does not foresee an increase in active Russian nuclear warheads or Moscow’s rearmament plans,” the specialist explains.
El Mundo journalists drew attention to the 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads that Russia and the United States are allowed to have. This is more than enough for an atomic war that will kill all life in the world, the authors concluded.
Recall that Putin decided to strengthen the nuclear triad and already in 2023 wants to deploy launchers of the Sarmat missile system with a new heavy missile, put on stream the production of hypersonic missiles “Dagger” and sea-based missiles “Zirkon”.
The American television channel CNN on February 22 reported on the unsuccessful test of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile. Journalists noted that at the beginning of the week, Washington and Moscow communicated through various channels to resolve conflicts.
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