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Opinion Putin did the world a favor by suspending Russia’s participation in New START

Military vehicles capable of carrying hypersonic ballistic missiles are seen during a military parade in Beijing in 2019. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
5 min

John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START pact on nuclear weapons could be a blessing. If it prompts the United States to acknowledge that the bipolar world of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms agreements is a thing of the past, and that China must now be reckoned with as a third major nuclear power, then Putin will have done the United States a favor.

His intent, of course, was to try to intimidate the United States and its allies aiding Ukraine against Russia’s aggressions. Putin was playing another of his nuclear cards, just as he had with implicit threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or to escalate the ongoing conventional war. Those threats appeared to unnerve NATO leaders, who hesitated to ship weapons requested by Kyiv.

Putin was, sadly, not entirely mistaken about the effect of his announcement: Some in the West bemoaned the impending death of the last major strategic-weapons agreement. But given the growing strength of the Russia-China entente and China’s expanding nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs, Cold War-style, U.S.-Russia arms agreements are not merely inadvisable but dangerous.

While still unclear what “suspending” rather than withdrawing fully from New START means, Putin’s gambit has exposed the real stakes, extending far beyond Ukraine or New START, which was a bad deal when written and unimproved by age.

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By addressing only strategic and not tactical nuclear weapons, the treaty effectively ratified a huge existing Russian advantage. New technologies — such as hypersonic missiles — have rendered it obsolete. In 2021, President Biden erred in extending New START for five years, locking in Moscow’s advantages. Even the White House now concedes Russia has significantly violated the treaty.

These flaws, however, pale before the emerging tripolar nuclear world’s complexities. China clearly understands this reality, and no doubt that is why it has refused to join any negotiations over a New START successor. Chinese President Xi Jinping likely is aiming to increase his nuclear assets until it is too late for negotiations to restrain their growth. The Post reported in 2021 on a “building spree” revealed by satellite imagery showing China’s construction of more than 100 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. The commander of U.S. nuclear forces told Congress in 2021 that a “breathtaking expansion” of China’s nuclear weapons program was underway.

The United States and Russia possess much larger nuclear stockpiles than China’s, but the important point is Beijing’s drive toward deployed weapons. The New START agreement, in theory, limited the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads; last year, the Pentagon projected that China would have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035, imminently in nuclear terms. No wonder silo construction is in overdrive.

The previous basically bipolar nuclear world was far simpler, strategically and operationally. The foundational U.S. nuclear doctrines and deterrence strategies assumed one main nuclear adversary. Unfortunately, what we “knew” during the Cold War is wholly insufficient today. Now facing two major nuclear adversaries, the United States must urgently recalibrate its warhead and delivery-system requirements in multiple, new, uncharted scenarios.

Consider two such possibilities. We could, for example, face a nuclear confrontation with Russia, after which, assuming we emerged “victorious,” we immediately faced a second nuclear confrontation with China. Another potential crisis could have us confronting a China-Russia axis, menacing us and our European and Asian allies simultaneously.

Before engaging in further strategic-arms diplomacy, Washington must decide fundamental issues of how large U.S. nuclear assets must be to face two adversaries. It would be suicidal to argue that the United States could make do with all three countries at equal warhead levels, a result typical of arms-control agreements. But how many more deliverable nuclear warheads would the United States need for self-defense and to establish deterrence? How many more weapons would be optimal, or even minimally sufficient? Equal to the combined Moscow-Beijing total, or more?

And don’t forget that North Korea, Iran and other aspiring nuclear-weapons states almost certainly see Russia and China as friendly nations, and the United States and its nuclear-armed allies Britain and France as enemies.

Enormously consequential strategic questions such as these, with far-reaching ramifications for the U.S. nuclear posture, anti-missile assets and defense budget, are here now. These life-and-death decisions are much more urgent for defending the United States than arms-control deals. Better to have the arms in hand, and then, if we choose, limit them, than not to have enough, allowing Moscow and Beijing to dictate future relations.

We also need our allies to engage, this time globally; it won’t be sufficient for the United States to deal with NATO on one hand or a series of bilateral, hub-and-spoke Indo-Pacific alliances on the other. China’s coming attainment of peer status as a nuclear power, and its entente with nuclear-superpower Russia, is a global threat. For making the urgency clear, thank you, President Putin.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.