Russia’s New START Speech Is More Scare Tactics Than New Arms Race, Says Former Ambassador
Putin left himself a loophole and doesn’t have the funds anyway.
In a lengthy speech that left many of his supporters nodding off, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that his country would “suspend” participation in the New START Treaty, the last arms control agreement between Russia and the United States.
The news provoked fewer yawns in the West. Putin’s words were “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible,” said U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, adding: “We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does. We’ll, of course, make sure that in any event we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies.”
Some media outlets and prominent Twitter voices called it a clear step toward a new nuclear arms race or even nuclear conflict.
But one former U.S. ambassador to Russia said Putin’s announcement is unlikely to portend a nuclear buildup.
“I don't think the Russians want a strategic arms race,” John Tefft told Defense One on Monday. “Where are they going to get the money to do that? They've never been able, historically, to really compete with us when it comes to development. They may have had money before, but I think they're going to be hard-pressed now, given all the factors that involve the war, to be able to do those kinds of things.”
Putin’s words are sad but not surprising, said Tefft, who added that Russia hasn’t been living up to its obligations under the agreement.
“For some time now, there haven't been the inspections,” he said. “They've refused to have a meeting of this bilateral control commission, which, on the one hand, is, you know, kind of a bureaucratic procedure…But it's been one of those places where you can sit and actually talk about, in this case, Russia's lack of compliance with the provisions of the treaty, but also have a chance to talk even informally, on the side about other things.”
Signed in 2011, New START limits the nuclear weapons between Russia and the United States to 700 deployed ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and ballistic missile submarines; 1,550 deployed warheads; and 100 non-deployed launchers. It also gives both sides the ability to check the other’s arsenal. Both sides renewed it for another five years in February 2021.
The agreement does not cover newer weapons such as Russia's Poseidon nuclear-armed drone submarine and hypersonic missiles. It also doesn’t cover low-yield tactical nuclear weapons of the sort that many fear Russia might use in Ukraine.
The United States is unlikely to deviate from its own half-trillion-dollar nuclear-arms program. The Pentagon is already several years into a big effort to build a new ICBM, a new class of ballistic missile submarines, and upgrade its nuclear-bomber fleet. The United States is also making progress on its own hypersonic weapons but has said that these would not carry nuclear weapons.
The United States had been looking at its own version of a low- or variable-yield “tactical” nuclear weapon, the sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, or SLCM-N, but U.S. President Joe Biden scuttled the program.
Tefft said the Russian leader has left himself room to reverse course: “I watched a clip of Putin this morning in that section of the speech where he talked about the ‘suspension’ of the New START treaty and he even went so far as to say, ‘I'm not saying we're pulling out of this.’ It was carefully phrased.”
So what then is the value of Putin’s declaration on Monday on suspension?
“I think part of this was for the scare value. It’s also to show his domestic audience,” said Tefft.
That fits with how Moscow has historically handled such negotiations. Tefft recalled previous similar displays, such as in 1983 when negotiators working for the then Soviet Union walked out of the first Strategic Arms Reduction Talks.
The Soviets “tried to use every which way to put pressure on the Reagan administration to negotiate or to terminate the deployment of medium range weapons and all the rest of you know, the history of this,” he said. “I think this is a standard technique that Moscow uses to try to influence Western public opinion. And I'm not sure it's going to be very successful now.”
Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an adviser at the CNA Corporation, said Putin’s announcement was likely “Russia signaling it does not want to be bound by international standards and norms it thinks work to the U.S. advantage.”