The New START nuclear treaty, explained

The New START nuclear treaty, explained

Today Russian President Vladimir Putin announcement that the country would suspend its participation in New START, the last major arms control treaty between the country and the United States. Putin clarified that the suspension was not a withdrawal, but the suspension itself represents a marked deterioration in nuclear trust and stability between the countries with the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

Putin’s remarks come a few days before the anniversary of the the invasion of the country of Ukraine, an all-choice war that has seen concrete Russian gains, while many of Russia’s greatest advances have been pushed back and overtaken. At present, much of the fighting takes the form of static, bitter warfare along the trenches and defended positions in eastern Ukraine. It is a kind of war akin to the bloody fronts of the First World War, although the presence of drone And long range precision artillery give it an undeniably modern character.

These modern weapons, and the coming influx of United States heavy tanks and other countries to Ukraine, put Putin’s remarks in a more immediate context. While New START is specifically a U.S.-Russia nuclear arsenals deal, the decision to suspend participation comes against the backdrop of Russia’s all-conventional war against Ukraine, with U.S. weapons bolstering the Ukrainian war effort.

A follow-up statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry clarified that the country would always notify the United States of any launches of intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs), and would expect the same in reverse, per a 1988 agreement between the United States States and the USSR. This suggests that there are at least efforts underway not to turn an app suspension into an immediate crisis.

To understand why the suspension matters and what the future holds for arms control, it helps to understand the deal as it stands.

What is New START?

New START is an agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation, which has an awkward formal name: the Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures to Reduce and Further Limit strategic offensive weapons. The short name, which isn’t really an actual acronym, is rather a reference to START 1, or the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was in effect from 1991 to 2009, and which New START replaced in 2011. New START is set to expire in 2026 unless renewed by both countries.

New START is the latest in a series of agreements limiting the overall size of US and Russian (Soviet early) nuclear arsenals, which at one time each measured in the tens of thousands of warheads. Today, thanks in large part to mutual disarmament agreements and New START limits, the United States and Russia have arsenals of approximately 5,400 and 6,000 warheads, respectively. Of these, the United States is estimated to have 1,644 deployed strategic weapons, a term meaning nuclear warheads on ICBMs or heavy bomber bases, presumably ready to be launched at any moment. It is estimated that Russia has approximately 1,588 deployed strategic weapons.

As a starting department broad outlines, the treaty limits the two countries to 700 total deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. (Bombers are counted in the treaty the same as a single-warhead missile, although nuclear-capable bombers like the B-52, B-2, and soon the B-21 can carry multiple warheads.) treaty sets a limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons, as well as 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBMs, SLBM launchers and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear weapons

In his tracking statement to the suspension of New START, the Russian Foreign Ministry clarified that it would stick to the overall cap on warheads and launch systems, as stated in the treaty.

What will change is the end of inspections, which have been central to the “trust but verification” structure of arms control agreements between the United States and Russia for decades. New START’s terms allow the two countries to inspect deployed and undeployed strategic systems (like missiles or bombers) up to 10 times a year, as well as undeployed systems up to eight times a year. These on-site inspections were discontinued in April 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemicand their resumption is the most probable act threatened by this change of posture.

It is not yet clear whether this suspension means the end of the treaty forever, although Putin taking such a step certainly does not bode well for its continued viability. If New START were to officially end, some analysts fear it could usher in a new era of nuclear weapons production and a rapid expansion of nuclear arsenals.

Although it remains a possibility, the strict limits on nuclear productionas well as decades of faded production expertise both in Russia and the United States, means that such a reboot could be more time- and resource-intensive than immediately feared. Both countries have spent the past 30 years working on the production of conventional forces. Ending an arms control treaty on nuclear weapons would be a gamble, suggesting nuclear weapons are the only tool capable of providing security where conventional weapons have failed.