Published in Hindustan Times on March 1, 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the State-of-the-Nation address last week. Coming two days before the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, Kremlin watchers expected to hear about a new war strategy. Instead, Putin shocked everyone by announcing that Russia was suspending its participation in the US-Russia New START (a 2010 agreement for further reduction and limitation of strategic offensive arms). Putin’s announcement made it clear that the 20th century model of nuclear arms control was dead.
New START limited each country to 1550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 launchers (heavy bombers and long-range missiles). In reality, each has more than three times as many warheads, categorised as reserves and those awaiting dismantlement. In addition, Russia is estimated to have over 2000 tactical nuclear weapons and the US, a few hundred. These two still account for over 90 percent of global nuclear arsenals.
New START, the sole bilateral nuclear arms control agreement in force, was to expire in February 2026. It would have lapsed in 2021 because Donald Trump was determined to bring China into the negotiations, a suggestion Beijing rejected. President Joe Biden’s election enabled the five-year extension but discussions on a follow-up treaty have proved elusive.
On-site inspections (each state is allowed 18 annually) under the treaty had been suspended since 2020, initially due to COVID-19 and then the Ukraine war. Last November, Russia postponed the scheduled meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission.
Putin claimed that his decision was a result of the US wanting to inflict ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia and under the circumstances, the idea of nuclear inspections was ‘a theatre of the absurd’. He blamed Ukraine for mounting drone attacks against Russian airbases that host nuclear capable strategic bombers, aided by NATO intelligence. At least three such strikes have taken place in December 2022 at Engels and Dyagilevo bases, though no significant damage was reported. Putin also hinted that the US was preparing to resume nuclear testing and declared that Russia would soon follow.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that Russia will continue to abide by the (numerical) restrictions. This has quelled apprehensions that Putin was triggering a new nuclear arms race with the US. However, since compliance mechanisms stand suspended and trust is at an all-time low, both states will now be willing to believe the worst about the other. Both are engaged in extensive nuclear modernisation programmes exploring hypersonic missiles, glide vehicles, and low yield warheads. Offensive cyber capabilities and AI developments create new risks for the integrity of nuclear command and control systems.
So far, China had been content with a minimum nuclear deterrent of approx. 300 warheads. In recent years, it is shifting to a more robust deterrent. Satellite imagery has revealed the existence of four new missile silo sites. It has tested hypersonic glide vehicles and a ‘fractional orbital bombardment system’, indicating that it now seeks to manage nuclear escalation in order to blunt US’ nuclear coercive edge. In 2021, Pentagon concluded that Chinese arsenal will cross 1000 warheads by 2030, now a widely accepted view. The expectation is that as China enhances its early-warning satellite capabilities, it will transition from its current no-first-use posture to a launch-on-warning mode.
Last year, North Korea accelerated its missile programme, undertaking nearly 90 launches, unveiling the Hwasong-17, with an estimated range of 15000 kms. Activity at the testing site has led to speculation that North Korea may be planning to undertake a seventh nuclear test. Meanwhile, media reports indicate that in Iran, IAEA inspectors have discovered traces of uranium enriched up to 84 percent that is just short of the 90 percent level used to produce a nuclear bomb. Iran has denied enrichment beyond 60 percent and blamed IAEA for media leaks and unprofessional conduct.
New START is not the first casualty. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with USSR which limited deployment of ABM systems thereby ensuring mutual vulnerability, a key ingredient of deterrence stability in the bipolar era. In 2019, the US accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and declared its withdrawal.
Today’s political disconnect is also evident in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the most successful example of multilateral arms control that has become a victim of its success. It succeeded in delegitimizing nuclear proliferation but not nuclear weapons. This is why NPT Review Conferences in recent years have become increasingly contentious and fail to reach any consensus. Another multilaterally negotiated agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has failed to enter into force even after a quarter century.
Major power rivalry is not new but the difference is that it is no longer a bipolar world and the old model of nuclear arms control established during the Cold War, shaped by the bipolar politics of two nuclear superpowers is untenable in the 21st century nuclear multipolar world. There are multiple nuclear equations – US-Russia, US-China, US-North Korea, India-Pakistan, India-China, but not strictly stand-alone. Further, nuclear rhetoric is on the rise raising the spectre of growing nuclear risks.
During the bipolar era, there was a perception that with the advent of nuclear weapons, wars between major powers were disincentivised. The real problem is that nuclear weapons did not create any incentives for conflict resolution. Putin’s speech is merely a reflection of this reality.