Elizabeth Boyle, Staff
On Tues., Feb. 21. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his State of the Union address to the Russian National Assembly. The alarming news for the Western world is that Putin announced Russia would be pulling out of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) nuclear arms pact. Putin stated that “[the West] wants to inflict a strategic defeat on us and claim our nuclear facilities… In this regard, I am forced to state that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty.”
Sergei Bobylyob | AFP/Getty Images
Strategic Arms Reduction agreements between the US and Russia (or its predecessor state, the Soviet Union) has a tumultuous history. The original START nuclear arms treaty between the US and the Soviet Union was effective between December 1994 and December 2009. This treaty limited each country to deploying 6,000 nuclear warheads and 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, also known as Strategic Nuclear Delivery Vehicles. A New START treaty, also referred to as START II, was put in place in January 1993 and formalized the agreement as applying to the US and the Russian Federation, which succeeded the Soviet Union. In Mar. 2002, US President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty which set a Dec. 2012 deadline for each country to reduce their stockpiles of strategic nuclear warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads. In 2010, as the original START was lapsing, the US and Russia agreed to a treaty called New START, that would limit each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on up to 800 strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (deployed and nondeployed). All variations of Strategic Arms Reduction pacts allow both countries to visit and inspect each other’s weapons sites.
In Feb.of 2021, the US and Russia agreed to extend the New START treaty until 2026. This is why Putin’s announcement came as a shock. Additionally, weapons site inspections had been halted since 2020 due the limitations on travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In his speech Putin stated that the decision to stop cooperation with the New START treaty is reversible. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Russia is not completely pulling out of the treaty but they will refuse to cooperation with the treaty until “Washington must show political will, make conscientious efforts for a general de-escalation and create conditions for the resumption of the full functioning of the Treaty and, accordingly, comprehensively ensuring its viability.”
Many Western countries have spoken out about Putin’s decision. US secretary of state Anthony Blinken said Putin’s decision is “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.” Blinken said that the Biden Administration is open to speak with Russia about Putin’s decision. A representative and spokesperson for the British Prime minister Rishi Sunak said that England hopes Putin will “reconsider his rash decision.” British newspaper The Economist called Putin’s decision “both predictable and reckless.”
Putin’s decision about the New START action is an expression of his anger at NATO siding with Ukraine during his ongoing “Special Military Operation.” Putin also strategically timed his State of the Union address to coincide with news that Russia may be wearing down Ukrainian troops in and around the city of Bakhmut and may be close to taking over the city. There is speculation that Putin is gaining confidence as he believes Russia is using its numerical advantages in soldiers and weapons systems, as well as its ability to conduct operations from up-to-now safe Russian territory to finally wear down the Ukraine military and population. CIA Director William Burns stated, “I think Putin is, right now, entirely too confident of his ability to wear down Ukraine.”
There appears little diminution in NATO support for Ukraine after Putin’s strategic move. Most western observers believe he is attempting to leverage western fear of Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine to erode NATO support, but in the short term he will be unsuccessful. Western analysts concede, however, that an authoritarian leader, such as Putin, can often play a waiting game with western democracies who may grow tired of funding a military enterprise that appears to have no near-term resolution.