The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tearing up the fabric of nuclear arms control is good for no one

Russian ballistic missiles roll through Moscow's Red Square during a parade in 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
3 min

The latest setback on nuclear arms control threatens one of the vital functions of the 2011 New START accord: the system of mutual inspections that provides confidence that the United States and Russia are abiding by the treaty’s weapons limits. Verification is eroding, and that is only the latest sign that nuclear dangers are rising.

The State Department said Tuesday that it cannot certify Russia is in compliance with the treaty, which limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 deployed missiles and deployed heavy bombers each. Both sides had agreed to suspend on-site inspections during the pandemic, but Russia has refused a U.S. request to restart them and also turned down a meeting of the treaty’s joint implementation body.

The United States will continue to monitor Russian strategic missile sites with satellites, but on-site inspections are also critical. Rose Gottemoeller, the chief negotiator of the treaty, explained in 2010 that on-site inspections provide “not only the ‘boots on the ground’ presence to confirm Russian data declarations” but also “insights into Russian strategic forces located at those facilities.” This means that U.S. and Russian officials can see the weapons directly and spot any signs the other side is violating the treaty. Reacting to the latest development, Ms. Gottemoeller, now a lecturer at Stanford University, wrote in the Financial Times that “Russia is beginning to tear at the fabric of the treaty.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is most likely seeking leverage over the United States that he can use in any settlement of the war he launched against Ukraine. But his actions recklessly undermine strategic stability. Without inspections, confidence in both sides’ arsenals will wane. The United States is embarking on a major strategic nuclear modernization cycle, and Russia is in no position to compete. It is not in Mr. Putin’s interests to undermine New START, as he may be poking his own eyes out.

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The Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals are now a fraction of the approximately 64,000 destructive warheads the two country held at the peak of the Cold War, which was more than enough to destroy life on Earth. The reductions resulted from a series of legally binding, verifiable treaties between the Soviet Union — and later Russia — and the United States. The negotiations were successful because both sides realized the dangers and viewed treaty limits as in their interests.

That arms control regime is disappearing. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty collapsed in 2019 over Russian violations. The United States withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, a confidence-building measure, in 2020. No new negotiations have been launched. The countries’ existing strategic nuclear weapons remain on launch-ready alert. Meanwhile, no treaty has ever limited tactical or short-range nuclear weapons.

Adding a worrisome dimension is China. After many years of maintaining a nuclear arsenal in the low hundreds of warheads, China now appears to be heading toward at least 1,000 by the end of this decade and is building a land-sea-air triad of delivery vehicles similar to that of Russia and the United States. China has refused to join a multilateral negotiation to limit nuclear arms.

New START expires in less than three years. Without an effective successor treaty, all three nations might face pressure to kick off a new nuclear arms race, which could send the world back to the dangerous precipice on which it teetered during the Cold War — or beyond.

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