With New START Setbacks Challenging Arms Control, US Must Work to Reduce Chances of Nuclear War, With or Without Russia
Last month, Moscow unilaterally suspended implementation of the New START Treaty, the only remaining legally binding, verifiable agreement on nuclear arms reduction between the United States and Russia. While this suspension does not mean the immediate end of the treaty or prompt resumption of an arms race, it worsens the already dim prospects for retaining nuclear arms control past 2026 when New START expires. Moscow's decision points to a fork in the road for U.S. policymakers wishing to prevent nuclear war: Either the United States and Russia will manage to continue using arms control as a tool of national security and deterrence, as we have for the past six decades, or we need to start planning for a world without it. The prudent choice is to prepare for both scenarios—through continued pressure on Moscow to resume dialogue, but also through investment in a resilient deterrence strategy and capabilities that leverage commercial innovation and increase strategic stability. Success in achieving these objectives will require bipartisan support in Washington.
What Happened With New START?
Vladimir Putin's Feb. 21 announcement suspending Russia's participation in New START came within weeks of a U.S. finding that Russia was in noncompliance with the treaty. Unlike Moscow's violation of the INF Treaty in 2018, however, the New START compliance problem did not involve a material breach of the treaty's core limits on weapons and delivery systems; instead, Washington accused Moscow of blocking inspections (and related consultations on treaty implementation), which are essential to verifying adherence to the agreed-upon caps.
From a U.S. perspective, the finding of noncompliance was not the end of New START. It seemed to be a wake-up-call for Russia, demonstrating that compliance with treaty commitments is essential to preserve an agreement's benefits—in this case, the prevention of a costly, risky nuclear arms race. It also highlighted the value and importance of on-site inspections to complement information derived from national technical means and from disclosures made under the treaty.
The noncompliance finding, which Russia has reportedly rejected, was included in the State Department's most recent annual report on New START implementation, released in January, which gave two basic reasons for being unable to certify Russia’s compliance with the treaty's limits:
- First, since August, Russia has refused to allow U.S. inspections that could verify the accuracy of the data declarations it has continued to provide pursuant to the treaty. No inspections have occurred in more than three years. They were initially halted by the COVID pandemic and then, last summer, Russia refused a U.S. request to restart inspections and unilaterally suspended them. (This happened shortly after President Joe Biden had proposed resuming dialogue on a new nuclear arms control agreement.) Russia's initial explanation for suspending inspections blamed Western support for Ukraine—specifically, Russia-related travel restrictions such as prohibiting Russian aircraft and halting non-diplomatic visas for Russian nationals. The State Department said last month that "there is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling [to] the United States and conducting inspections"—a position it reiterated more recently.
- Second, Moscow has failed to reschedule an abruptly cancelled session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, or BCC—the mechanism created to discuss practical issues related to treaty implementation, including the resumption of inspections. The BCC last met in October 2021. A week-long meeting scheduled for late November 2022 was postponed indefinitely by Moscow one day before talks were to begin.
Until the State Department report, the United States had assessed that Russia has been in compliance with the treaty every year since it entered into force in 2011. Moreover, even the January report assessed that Russia has not significantly exceeded New START's numerical limits, affording some reassurance of strategic stability. The report emphasized that Russia's deployed strategic warheads were "likely under the New START … limit at the end of 2022” and that, more generally, "Russia did not engage in significant activity above the treaty limits in 2022.”
However, “as a result of Russia’s close proximity to the warhead limit and our inability to spot-check the accuracy of Russian warhead declarations," the United States was unable to conclusively determine whether Russia had abided by "its obligation to limit its deployed warheads on delivery vehicles subject to the New START Treaty to 1,550.”
What Does This Mean for Nuclear Arms Control?
As frictions around New START have ramped up over the past year, the messages from Washington and Moscow have sounded very different: While the United States has emphasized New START compliance and the need to reduce nuclear risk and maintain dialogue, Russia has suggested that progress on New START will depend on obtaining concessions in the war in Ukraine. This has precluded any progress on nuclear arms control. Specifically, though some diplomatic communication continues, Russia’s escalation of the New START situation—with its unilateral suspension, first, of inspections and, ultimately, of implementation of New START itself—has made reasonable talks increasingly difficult. (Moscow would probably argue that it is Western support for Ukraine that has led to this result.)
While Russia’s position could reflect a straightforward desire to use New START as leverage in talks over Ukraine, it also might indicate a more fundamental and long-term rift with the United States on the value of nuclear arms control as a useful tool for national (and international) security. Policymakers must weigh both possibilities.
Ukraine Tensions in the New START Context
As noted above, Russia has clearly linked progress on nuclear arms control, including New START, to the conflict in Ukraine. In an indirect exchange this month, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reportedly said there was no chance for Moscow's decision on New START to be reconsidered “until the United States changes its behavior … in relation to Ukraine,” which has included billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance to Kyiv; in response, outgoing State Department spokesman Ned Price said explicitly that "Russia’s purported suspension of new START will … not stop the United States from continuing to support Ukraine.”
In addition, it is worth noting that Putin suspended New START the day after President Joe Biden visited Kyiv to demonstrate continued strong U.S. support for Ukraine. The Russian leader peppered his announcement with accusations against NATO and the West for de-linking the two issues, which he claimed amounted to the following message: "You, Russia, fulfill everything we agreed on without fail, including the New START Treaty, and we'll do whatever we want—as if there's no connection between the matter of New START and, say, the conflict in Ukraine and other hostile actions by the West against our country." Alluding to the U.S. insistence on resuming inspections, he added: "[They] want to inflict strategic defeat on us and [at the same time] are trying to get all up in our nuclear facilities."
The United States, on the other hand, has consistently viewed the war in Ukraine and resolution of New START problems as separate, laying out an achievable path for Russia to resolve the latter. After Putin's suspension of the treaty, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Mallory Stewart said the Kremlin's move was "not in anyone’s interest" but was "readily fixable," as was Russia's noncompliance, "should Moscow choose to return to the benefits of transparency, stability and nuclear risk reduction.” Stewart echoed Price’s warning, saying that Russia’s announced suspension of New START "will not deter the United States or its allies or partners … from supporting Ukraine." She also said that “President Putin has chosen to hold the one remaining bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia hostage to his expansionist goals” and that "Moscow’s decision and its continuing nuclear threats only reinforce how important standing behind Ukraine remains for the United States and the global community.”
The End of Arms Control?
It is not yet clear whether the Russian linkage of New START to Ukraine is a short-term tactic (and bluff) or reflects Russian leaders' view that geopolitical circumstances are changing so drastically that nuclear arms control is no longer valuable as a key element of strategic stability. The latter option would signify that Moscow may now be willing to abandon nuclear arms control as a risk-reduction tool and that the understanding of strategic stability long shared by the two nuclear superpowers is starting to diverge. Understanding this is crucial for strategic deterrence policy: It will help determine whether the era of U.S.-Russian arms control is irrevocably at an end, and whether the United States must seek to create a stable deterrence strategy without buy-in from Russia on establishing bilateral guardrails.
Putin’s unilateral suspension of New START has further undermined the chances for continued mutual nuclear weapon constraints and their benefits for strategic stability. The perception that Russia may be less committed to strategic stability than before is fueled by reports that Moscow appears to be materially supporting China’s rapid nuclear modernization and expansion. The prospects for any near-term U.S.-Russian negotiations, already dim a month ago, are now even less likely, absent a major shift in Putin's position. In this context, Ryabkov's warnings of dire possibilities like the end of arms control and the start of direct U.S.-Russian confrontation could be a likely outcome unless there is concerted leadership in finding ways to de-escalate.
In either case, it is clear that the latest New START setbacks say less about the treaty itself—in force for more than a decade, extended for five years in 2021 and praised as a deal worth preserving by both the United States and Russia as recently as February—and more about the two countries' divergent paths and the foreseeable state of U.S.-Russian tensions, heightened immeasurably by Moscow's brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Where Does This Leave Us?
If Washington and Moscow are able to find a way to re-engage on arms control, it will be imperative not just to salvage New START, but to do the hard work of designing a follow-on treaty.
While resumed arms control talks are not likely, they are not inconceivable. The rationale for preserving arms control as a useful tool now is the same as Secretary of State Antony Blinken's explanation for extending New START in 2021: "An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.” In addition to multiple U.S. assertions of its willingness to resume New START implementation, recent statements from Moscow suggest that Russia too continues to see value in the treaty. Hours after Putin’s announcement of the suspension, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the decision was “reversible.” Earlier, right after the U.S. finding of noncompliance, a Kremlin spokesman stated that continuation of the treaty is "very important," describing New START as the only arms control treaty that remains "at least hypothetically viable." (Perhaps this indicates that some Russian officials are concerned that, if an arms race did begin, Moscow would be at a disadvantage: Respected Russian military analyst Alexei Arbatov wrote recently that "the collapse of New START would allow the U.S. to double and even triple the number of its strategic nuclear warheads in a few years with minimal cost"; Russia, already entangled in a costly war, may find it difficult to keep up.)
If the pursuit of arms control continues to be a U.S. and Russian priority to avoid a dangerous, unconstrained nuclear arms race, Washington and Moscow should initiate serious dialogue not only about inspections and treaty implementation but about urgently negotiating a post-New START agreement. Until recently, the working context was that each side had security interests it wanted reflected in any new deal, but the main forum for discussing them—the U.S.-Russian Strategic Stability Dialogue—had been stalled by the war in Ukraine. The issues related to a new verifiable treaty, particularly one that would address limits on all nuclear warheads, are complex and will likely require extensive negotiation to be resolved. As during the Cold War, such talks would not confer legitimacy to positions the United States rejects; they would demonstrate our intention to set up guardrails to prevent unintended disastrous miscalculation and escalation and would set predictable limits on numbers of nuclear weapons.
Innovation for Deterrence Resilience
The United States should creatively develop unilateral policies to ensure that we do not stumble into a nuclear war, particularly if the two sides do not resume substantive arms control talks. Chief among these policies, in my view, are resilience and transparency. Whether there will be a new nuclear arms race, with China joining the fray, is not clear. Therefore, U.S. policymakers must lay the groundwork for both scenarios—a future with or without arms control.
In light of this reality, the United States must take unilateral steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Determining what capabilities are needed will take time, but they will likely fall under the general category of resilience. This means building a stabilizing nuclear and space architecture, one with many redundant layers at a system level—for example, deploying smaller, more numerous military satellites, so the destruction of a few by an adversary would not jeopardize the system as a whole. Such an architecture must be able to absorb attacks without their leading to escalation; this buys time for the commander in chief to weigh options instead of forcing a rapid, possibly rash response. Greater transparency and better situational awareness through the use of artificial intelligence and imagery would also be stabilizing, because they reduce the risk of miscalculation by decreasing the element of surprise and strengthening deterrence. The goal is to not let ourselves or our adversaries get backed into a corner where the only remaining option would be nuclear escalation.
Therefore, broadly prioritizing resilience across the board can contribute to a stable deterrence architecture. We have known for decades that secure second-strike capability is essential to stable deterrence, and have prioritized it. As technology has changed, the particular technical capabilities necessary for stability have also changed. Today, stability demands greater resilience – the ability to absorb more adversary action before our decisions are dictated by that adversary action. To maximize resilience, we must leverage commercial innovation, including commercial space capabilities and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics and ubiquitous imagery and new sensing capabilities, to benefit strategic deterrence and defense. These new tools can contribute to increasing transparency and improve information for decision-makers.
Need for Bipartisan Cooperation in Washington
The increasing polarization in Washington of arms control as a useful national security tool represents another significant challenge to reducing the risk of nuclear war. Bipartisan support for arms control has markedly waned over the past 15 years, leading some in Congress to fan the flames of a potential arms race. The causes for this shift range from increasing political polarization of nuclear arms control, to the departure of congressional Cold War leaders who keenly understood the value of legal constraints on nuclear arms, to China's growing nuclear arsenal.
Today, some arms control skeptics oppose any policy that would constrain the United States' right to deploy additional strategic nuclear warheads. These challenges make it trickier for U.S. policymakers to renew a political deal to preserve strategic stability through nuclear arms control and nuclear modernization.
The tensions over New START illustrate the latest divisions in how to best address Russia’s actions. For instance, after the U.S. noncompliance finding, senior Congressional Republicans urged "President Biden to direct the Department of Defense to prepare for a future where Russia may deploy large numbers of warheads," rather than to pursue a return to compliance. After Russia suspended implementation, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee added that “hoping Russia returns to the fold is not wise, nor is it a strategy. The Biden administration should declare Russia to be in ‘material breach’ of the New START Treaty and direct the Joint Staff and U.S. Strategic Command to accelerate planning in the event Russia breaches New START caps. All options must be on the table, including deploying additional nuclear forces and increasing the readiness of our nuclear triad.”
Pressuring Russia to return to compliance and holding Russia accountable not only for its illegal war in Ukraine but also for jeopardizing New START and future of nuclear arms control should remain a top national security priority. To this end, Congress should work in a bipartisan manner with the administration to maximize U.S. effectiveness, rather than exposing divisions in domestic politics.
There is precedent for this kind of bipartisan and constructive response. In 2017, section 1244 of the House version of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act mandated a plan for sanctions against Russia to address its violation of the INF Treaty, that would have helped press for its return to compliance. Such bipartisan efforts to press Russia for a return to implementation and compliance and to maintain strategic stability more generally would increase pressure on Russia now too.
Similarly, Congress has supported the Department of Defense’s new approach to building survivable missile warning and missile tracking architecture. Bipartisan support to continue leveraging commercial innovation and resiliency to strengthen modern deterrence will maximize deterrence and reduce the risk of nuclear war with or without Russia’s participation in arms control.
In conclusion, the New START problems can be resolved and we must continue to press for the negotiation of new nuclear arms control agreements. However, we must also prepare for a future in which U.S. and Russian views of strategic stability may diverge. Washington must unilaterally devise alternatives, particularly if the continuation of nuclear arms control appears uncertain. These should include pursuing a stable deterrence architecture based on resilience and reducing the risks of escalating a crisis or conflict to nuclear war. Leadership from both the executive branch and Congress will underpin this new future.
Leonor Tomero is a leading expert on nuclear deterrence, national security, space and missile defense, including applying innovative technologies and concepts for strategic deterrence. She served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy and as counsel and Strategic Forces Subcommittee Democratic staff lead on the House Armed Services Committee.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Kelly Michals shared under a Creative Commons license.