Putin Suspended the Last Remaining Nuclear Pact With the U.S. Here’s What Happens Now

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Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended his nation’s participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement with the U.S. on Tuesday, condemning the West in a nearly two-hour speech that sharpened tensions over the war in Ukraine.

The announcement, which came a day after President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine, shows how the confrontation between Russia, the U.S., and Europe is approaching a perilous crossroads one year after Putin ordered Russian forces to invade. From the start of of the war, the U.S. and NATO have raised fears about the risks of wider war and sought to avoid escalation even as they provided Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry and military aid. The possible collapse of the last arms control pact between the world’s two nuclear superpowers illustrates how the security situation is growing more precarious, not less, as the war enters its second year despite Russia’s struggles to gain ground in Ukraine.

Around 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads belong to Moscow and Washington. To remind the world of the high stakes, Putin has continually chosen to rattle his nuclear saber at the U.S. and NATO as they try to pressure him to abandon his military campaign. During Tuesday’s state-of-the-nation address, Putin announced he’s placed strategic missile forces on “combat duty,” while declaring the suspension of the arms-reduction treaty known as New START.

The 2010 agreement limits the U.S. and Russia each to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads—strategic weapons that can be placed on submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range bomber planes. It also includes monitoring and on-site inspection elements to help ensure compliance, which Putin blasted in his speech.

“The United States and NATO are directly saying that their goal is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. Are they going to inspect our defense facilities, including the newest ones, as if nothing had happened?” he said. “Do they really think we’re easily going to let them in there just like that?”

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In announcing that Russia would suspend its participation in the treaty, Putin is ending bilateral communication, data exchanges, and nuclear site visits that give both the U.S. and Russia detailed insights into the day-to-day operations of one another’s strategic nuclear forces. The U.S. can continue to collect information on Russia’s nukes via “national technical means,” including orbiting spy satellites and other intelligence-gathering measures, but these procedures pale in comparison to New START’s monitoring and verification regime. Putin also declared Russia is ready to resume nuclear-weapons tests should the U.S. carry one out first—something that hasn’t been done in more than 30 years.

Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s director for Europe and Central Asia, says Putin is trying to force the U.S. to choose between supporting Ukraine and maintaining a key nuclear-arms agreement. “Arms control, however, is not a prize for the U.S., but something that is very much in both Russia’s and the U.S.’s interest, and in the interests of the world as a whole,” Oliker says. Putin’s choice of “suspending” the treaty, rather than “withdrawing” from it, may indicate “that he plans for Russia’s arsenal to stay under treaty limits,” she says.

It would take time for Russia to increase its deployed nuclear warheads beyond current limits, and both the U.S. and Russia already have more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, anyway. But Putin’s declaration is a blow to the stability of global security, says Rose Gottemoeller, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as chief negotiator for New START. “If all limits go away, we will be on the cusp of a nuclear arms race,” she says. “Nobody—not the Russians, nor Chinese, nor any other country—should be interested in that outcome.”

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New START is the last remaining legacy of international arms-control agreements hammered out during the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union identified certain weapons deemed mutually menacing and worked to eliminate the threat. Before that, the two sides would manipulate each other’s nightmares of nuclear annihilation in order to maneuver for advantage in times of relative peace, amassing tens of thousands of nuclear arms pointed at one another’s major cities.

The treaties helped support an uneasy peace that has gradually unraveled, casting the stability of the global nuclear balance in doubt. Several Cold War-era arms control agreements have been torn up, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin agreed to extend New START for five years just days after Biden took office in 2021, but its future looks bleak.

During a visit to Greece, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the speech “really unfortunate and very irresponsible.” Added Blinken: “We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does.”

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Even though Putin officially declared the treaty’s suspension Tuesday, the U.S. believes he’s just publicly declaring a policy that his government has been carrying out in private for more than two years. The State Department said on Jan. 31 that Moscow is in “noncompliance” with the treaty because inspections have been suspended since March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the U.S. has been unable to get Russia to resume them. Therefore, the U.S. can’t determine whether Russia’s warhead numbers are accurate. The agreement also includes what’s called a Bilateral Consultative Commission, which is designed for the two nations to discuss treaty implementation. Moscow has refused to meet since October 2021.

While Putin’s announcement doesn’t necessarily mark the end of the treaty, arms-control experts agree that it may foreshadow its ultimate demise. It seems unlikely there will be a follow-on agreement when New START expires on Feb. 5, 2026. That would leave the nuclear stockpiles for both the U.S. and Russia unrestrained for the first time since 1972.

“Arms control reflects the status of the relationship,” says Pavel Podvig, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva. “The goal is, in my view, to show that Russia is not planning to seek improvement. I don’t think it will build beyond the limits. It can deploy more warheads, but that will have no practical value… Besides, everyone will suspect it of doing it anyway.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com