Accessibility links

Breaking News

'It Could Be Worse': Weapons Expert Comments On Putin's Suspension Of New START Nuclear Arms Treaty

Russia test launches a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile as part of exercises involving the country's strategic nuclear forces. (file photo)
Russia test launches a ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile as part of exercises involving the country's strategic nuclear forces. (file photo)

In his address to the nation on February 21, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining U.S.-Russian arms control pact. Lawmakers approved the decision the following day.

Under the 2010 treaty, each side is limited to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. The treaty also includes a compliance-monitoring system that comprises on-site inspections.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Moscow’s move “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Sergei Dobrynin spoke with Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher specializing in arms control and disarmament with the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, to ask about the role of New START and the significance of Moscow’s decision at a time when tensions between Russia and the West are at historically high levels.

RFE/RL: What restrictions are contained in New START aside from ceilings on the number of delivery systems and warheads?

Pavel Podvig: There is the system of inspections to check compliance with those ceilings. It comprises many components, including a system of data exchanges and a broad system of notifications about changes in the composition of one’s arsenal. When a missile is destroyed or liquidated, the appropriate notification is sent. If I remember correctly, if a missile is redeployed to a new location or if a mobile system leaves its base, notifications are also sent.

I got the impression that the Russian senior leadership’s understanding of how the New START system very approximate and profoundly wrong.

In short, the two sides are constantly exchanging a large volume of information. In addition, of course, there is a system of on-site inspections which enables the sides to verify the accuracy of the notifications that the two sides are exchanging.

And there is one other, very important mechanism -- the bilateral consultative commission, which is convened to settle all issues related to the fulfillment of the agreement, to resolve disagreements, and so on.

Now these mechanisms, apparently, will not be used. No data exchanges, at least on Russia’s part. The work of the bilateral commission will be suspended. On-site inspections will stop. At the same time, according to the Foreign Ministry statement, Russia promised to respect the quantitative limits.

RFE/RL: In explaining the decision to suspend participation in the treaty, Putin said that the Americans are demanding to inspect Russian defense sites but not allowing the Russians to inspect American ones. What did he have in mind?

Podvig: I cannot find the statement that he was citing. Some time ago (January 31, 2023), the United States released a report on compliance with New START and there they wrote that Russia is not fulfilling its obligations regarding the convening of the bilateral commission.

In the treaty, there is a precise timeframe during which the commission must be convened when requested by either side, and Russia did not comply with that. But Putin said something completely different. I got the impression that the Russian senior leadership’s understanding of how the New START system works, how the inspections are set up, and what is subject to inspections is very approximate and profoundly wrong.

RFE/RL: Is it true that Russia refused to allow an inspection last August?

Podvig: It is a complicated story. Inspections and sessions of the commission stopped in the spring of 2020 by mutual agreement because of the pandemic.

Pavel Podvig
Pavel Podvig

In the summer of 2022, it became clear that inspections could resume, but in this case I think the Americans did not read the situation very well. They decided to resume them on a whim, simply sending a notice saying, ‘We are coming to inspect.’

Russia expected that first the commission would convene and then it would discuss resumption. Russia was somewhat offended by the sudden request and, I would say, with reason.

The treaty formally allows sides to exclude sites from inspections in cases such as when there is a flood or some kind of accident. But in this case, Russia declared all of its sites excluded, so the Americans didn’t go.

But at the same time, on the working level, they agreed to convene the commission in Cairo on November 29 and discuss the matter. Russia has already complained about complications getting transit visas, limitations on flights, and so on. But the issues were completely resolvable. Bags were already packed, as far as I know, but then the matter reached the eyes of Russia’s senior political leadership, which concluded what we heard [in Putin’s speech]: Why are we going to talk to the Americans when the situation is like this?

RFE/RL: Does that mean that Putin had already made the decision to suspend the treaty before November 29?

Podvig: Not necessarily. Work continued nonetheless. As I understand it, on the working level, at the level of the Foreign Ministry and the State Department, people were trying to avoid irreversible steps. But things dragged out and when it reached 45 days after the collapse of the Cairo meeting, the Americans announced that Russia was not fulfilling its obligations regarding this particular point of the treaty.

RFE/RL: Is it correct to say that up until that point, both sides knew practically everything about the other’s strategic nuclear arsenals -- the locations of their basing, their maintenance, and production; as well as the number of delivery systems and warheads?

Podvig: Yes, of course. The entire system was created in 1991 and began working in 1994 when the START-1 treaty came into force. All the objects that fall within the scope of the treaty were very well known, and there were no secrets.

U.S. President George Bush (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet to sign the first START treaty in Moscow in 1991.
U.S. President George Bush (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet to sign the first START treaty in Moscow in 1991.

RFE/RL: How about the new types of strategic weapons that, if you believe Putin, Russia is developing? Do they also fall within the scope of the treaty?

Podvig: That is a complex question, and these matters have to be discussed within the framework of the consultations mechanism. In the New START accord there is a point that says that, if one side creates any new types of strategic weapons, then the other side has the right to raise the matter at the bilateral commission.

Regarding these new Russian systems, the U.S. raised this issue and a dialogue on them was under way. In the treaty it doesn’t clearly say what comes after such consultations. The Russian position has been that these systems do not fall under the existing treaty, but there was an understanding in principle that if there would be a follow-on treaty, then they might be included.

But it is very important to mention that, even if these weapons were perfected, they would not play a crucial practical role that could affect the strategic balance. What is important here is the willingness of the parties to discuss including them in any new agreement.

RFE/RL: Does the United States have new strategic weapons that the treaty does not cover?

Podvig: To my knowledge, no. When modernizing their forces, they have used a program of one-to-one replacements. That is, land-based ballistic missiles are replaced with land-based ballistic missiles. The only thing that might be considered relevant is a U.S. plan to revive its nuclear-powered, sea-launched cruise-missile program.

At one time the United States had such a system, but they first removed it from submarines and put it into storage and later, around 2014, they destroyed them all.

Now there is the idea that such a system should be recreated in a new form. If I remember correctly, the Biden administration killed this idea, but if they do decide to proceed, it would be outside the scope of New START. But in the overall strategic picture, the role of systems like that is not very significant.

RFE/RL: At present both sides have notably fewer strategic delivery systems than are allowed under the New START treaty. As for warheads, they are closer to the treaty ceilings. If the treaty is renounced, how easy would it be for the two sides to increase their ready arsenals?

Podvig: If we are talking about delivery systems, it would be difficult. I believe the United States could add additional ballistic missiles to its existing submarine fleet. At some point in the past, they reduced them from 24 missiles to 20 and could fairly easily restore the four they took away. Russia does not have any spare delivery capacity. Now there is a program of replacing old missiles with new ones on a one-for-one basis. But there are no extra missiles lying around in storage.

As for warheads, the situation is a bit different, since there are warheads in storage. According to my information, the United States could double the number of its deployed warheads fairly quickly. Its Minuteman missiles are currently deployed with one warhead and could be quickly and easily upgraded to three. The same is true for America’s sea-launched missiles.

We have less information about Russia, but it would seem there are some missiles that are deployed without the maximum number of possible warheads. According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia can increase its number of deployed warheads by 50 percent. But that capability has always existed and was taken into account during the treaty negotiations. And it was determined that it did not present a fundamental danger.

RFE/RL: So are you saying that neither Russia nor the United States was really rushing to deploy as many warheads as possible under the treaty?

Podvig: Exactly. And it isn’t true either that everyone was just sitting around waiting for the treaty to expire. Everyone was reconciled, so to speak, to the idea that each side had 1,500 warheads, and all planning was done on this basis.

There are degrees of bad news, and, in this situation, I think the absence of completely awful news can be considered good news.

That situation could change. The Americans are beginning to look at China and think, ‘We need more.’ I am sure that in America there are already conversations along the lines of, ‘Since we can’t check how many warheads Russia has, we must assume that they are deceiving us and deploying more than is allowed.’

Russia will quickly realize it has lost a tool through which it could show the United States and the whole world that it keeps its promises regarding strategic arms limitations. That tool is now gone and accusations against Russia will undoubtedly come. And when they do, Russia will not be able to respond substantially. In this sense, the decision to suspend the treaty was not properly considered.

RFE/RL: In his speech, Putin practically linked Moscow’s return to New START with the taking into account of the nuclear arsenals of Britain and France. Does that make sense in terms of strategic security or is it a purely political demand?

Podvig: Of course, it would be good if all arsenals were taken into consideration…. But the process of arms control can’t just be reduced to an accounting of who has how many weapons. In the big picture, that doesn’t matter so much. What is important are the agreements and the control mechanisms, and mutual understanding.

The Soviet Union tried to include Britain and France in arms control agreements back in 1968, but everyone understood the political necessity of reaching agreement with the United States. Russia, through the arms control process, was an equal partner with the United States and that was important.

Including other countries into the agreement would be extremely difficult. If Russia insisted on this position, there would be no agreement. The Soviets understood this, and each time was willing to negotiate just with the United States and not pay attention to the others. And that makes sense – the arsenals of Britain and France are not significant.

RFE/RL: Would it be fair to say that suspending New START under the current circumstances is almost the minimal level of escalation possible, and has little practical importance?

Podvig: I would put it this way: It could be worse. I believe arms control and disarmament is a political process that reflects the current state of mutual relations. So there is nothing unexpected in this decision.

On the other hand, Russia stressed that it was suspending the agreement, not withdrawing from it. They said they will not exceed the established ceilings and will continue providing advance notifications of missile launches, which is very important.

Regarding testing, they said they would only resume testing if the United States did so. There are degrees of bad news, and, in this situation, I think the absence of completely awful news can be considered good news.

Translated from Russian by Robert Coalson
  • 16x9 Image

    Sergei Dobrynin

    Sergei Dobrynin is one of the leading investigative journalists in Russia. He has been instrumental in the production of dozens of in-depth reports, exposing corruption among Russia's political elite and revealing the murky operations behind Kremlin-led secret services. He joined RFE/RL in 2012.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.