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For Decades, Treaties Helped Keep the World Safe From Nuclear War. That Era Is Over

4 minute read

For years, nuclear arms control treaties helped keep the world safe. But the era of treaties may be coming to an end after Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia suspended its participation in New START—the last remaining one between the U.S. and Russia—and China remains reluctant to engage in dialogue about arms control.

The Russian President’s comments came during his long-delayed annual state of the nation, during which he railed against the West and defended the war in Ukraine. “They want to inflict a strategic defeat on us and claim our nuclear facilities… In this regard, I am forced to state that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty,” Putin said.

But experts tell TIME that Russia has simply formalized its longstanding noncompliance with New START, which was ratified in 2010. “Putin’s announcement is merely an official stamp of approval on what they’ve already been doing,” says John Erath, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The New START treaty imposes multiple limits on the amount of nuclear weapons, capping each country at 1,550 deployed long-range nuclear warheads, 700 deployed long-range nuclear delivery vehicles, and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers and delivery vehicles.

A key element of New START is mutual inspections; up to 18 site visits are allowed a year but Russia and the U.S. suspended them during the COVID-19 pandemic and last fall Moscow refused to resume them. “Without verification, there is no confidence that the other side is not cheating,” Erath says. If that component is absent, “it means nothing.”

Before inspections, the U.S. and Russia largely relied on satellites to stay informed about each other’s nuclear weapons programs—a method they need to rely more heavily on again.

“There are no longer any guard rails”

The decision to suspend New START is part of a longer term “dismantlement of the long-standing U.S.-Russian arms control architecture,” says William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. These agreements, he says, were built on the basis of common interest in terms of reducing the economic costs and military risks associated with a nuclear arms race. “Absent New START, there are no longer any guard rails in place.”

Yet experts are keen to point out that the issue of nuclear arms control goes much further than New START. In 2019, for example, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which for decades had eliminated a range of nuclear weapons that threatened Europe in the 1980s, collapsed after Russia violated its terms. (The agreement had required both countries to get rid of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that could travel between 300 and 3,400 miles.) In 2020, the U.S. withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, citing Russian noncompliance. The treaty had required all imagery collected from overflights to be shared with each other.

The premise of Mutually Assured Destruction also means that both the U.S. and Russia already have large arsenals that have long worried experts and nonproliferation activists. Erath says that despite Putin’s announcement on Tuesday, there is no evidence that Russia is building more nukes. “They don’t need to; they have plenty to deter a nuclear war,” he says.

Experts also say that the focus on the U.S. and Russia ignores China, a growing nuclear power. “What would stability be like in a trilateral relationship?” asks David Holloway, a professor at Stanford University whose research focuses on the history of nuclear weapons.

Still, experts say that the formal suspension of New START is not insignificant and could accelerate the nuclear arms control era’s demise.

“I would not be surprised to see Russia resume nuclear testing in the not-too-distant future,” says Potter of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “It will likely make the case that it no longer makes sense for it to subscribe to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) when the United States [and China] have yet to ratify the Treaty.”

The U.N. General Assembly adopted the CTBT in 1996 but it never entered into force.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com