After decades of United States-Russia relations operating under the umbrella of nuclear arms reduction treaties, the world now faces a much more uncertain future. On Tuesday, February 21, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was unilaterally suspending its participation in the New START Treaty. The New START Treaty was initially signed in 2010 and was originally set to expire on February 5, 2026. While Putin stopped short of a complete withdrawal, his announcement strikes a major blow to an already-strained bilateral relationship. Russia’s opting to suspend, rather than withdraw from the treaty is noteworthy, however, because a withdrawal would be delayed until three months after Russia announces its intent and because mere suspension can be reversed if circumstances change.

A Brief History of US-Russia Nuclear Arms Control Treaties

After the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis showed the world how quickly U.S.-Soviet tensions could escalate into a nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union began negotiating a treaty that would limit the massive nuclear arsenals that both countries had stockpiled. The Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) was signed in 1972 and included two separate treaties – one focusing on offensive arms and the other on defensive capabilities. The Interim Agreement temporarily froze the maximum weapons delivery systems each party could have, thus slowing the ongoing arms proliferation. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty placed limits on each party’s missile defense systems. The United States ultimately withdrew from the ABM Treaty in June 2002.

After the success of SALT I in reducing weapons stockpiles and encouraging closer bilateral relations, the United States and the Soviet Union began negotiating a successor treaty that would further limit weapons delivery systems. These negotiations resulted in SALT II, which never entered into force because President Jimmy Carter asked the Senate not to consider ratifying SALT II after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. SALT II would have reduced the cap below the limits initially put in place in SALT I. 

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the United States and the Soviet Union began negotiating the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which took a more comprehensive approach than previous treaties. For the first time in such a treaty, START I limited the number of deployed nuclear warheads each party could have (6,000) and further reduced the maximum allowable weapons delivery systems. START I also provided for a rigorous verification regime that included on-site inspections. START I, which was signed in 1991, expired on December 5, 2009. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in June 1992, the United States and Russia began negotiating for a follow-up to START I that would further reduce the allowable deployed nuclear warheads limit to a maximum of 3,500. START II never entered into force because the United States Senate refused to accept Russian conditions that would have amended the ABM Treaty. Despite START II’s failure, in 2002, President George W. Bush and President Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which reduced the allowable deployed nuclear warheads to a maximum of 2,200. SORT remained in effect until 2011.

With the pending expiration of START I, the Obama administration began negotiations for a successor treaty—New START. New START entered into force on February 5, 2011. New START capped deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 and limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers, and heavy bombers. Similar to START I, the treaty’s verification regime included on-site inspections, ensured compliance through the use of national technical means (i.e., satellite imagery), and allowed for the exchange of annual telemetry data (i.e., metrics about weapons capabilities). The treaty was originally set to expire in February 2021, but President Trump and President Putin agreed to extend the treaty for 5 years. 

The Death of New START

While Putin’s recent announcement is likely the last nail in the coffin for New START, the treaty had been nearing its deathbed for a while. The COVID-19 pandemic created difficulties for on-site inspections. Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has deeply complicated bilateral relations

On August 8, 2022, Russia announced that it was unilaterally suspending inspections due to the travel restrictions placed on it by the United States. Negotiations to resume inspections were set to begin in late 2022, however, Russia unilaterally postponed negotiations a few days before they were set to begin. Recently, on January 31, the United States’ State Department announced that Russia was not complying with the terms of New START by refusing to allow US inspectors into the country. This all culminated with Putin’s announcement on February 21 that Russia was suspending its participation in the treaty. 

While Putin’s announcement stopped short of complete withdrawal, it is a major tipping point amidst an already-worsening bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia. Biden decried Putin’s announcement, saying that Putin was making a “big mistake.” Throughout the conflict in Ukraine, NATO countries have been increasing military aid to Ukraine. Putin has also increased his rhetoric and threatened several times to use his nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The inability to inspect Russian facilities will further fuel distrust and worsen relations between the United States and Russia.

The announcement also comes at a time of increasing global tensions regarding nuclear weapons. China recently announced that it was increasing its stockpile to match the United States’ and Russia’s levels. North Korea has been testing ICBMs with increasing frequency. Inspectors in Iran have also expressed concerns about rapid uranium enrichment in Iranian facilities. Russia’s suspension of New START further contributes to global insecurity regarding nuclear weapons.

The Possibility of a Re-START

The future of arms control is up in the air. The United States and Russia have the opportunity to create a treaty from a blank slate and shouldn’t be confined to the concerns that existed during the rushed negotiations over a decade ago. A new treaty could cover tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been included in an arms control treaty. A new treaty could also further lower the cap on maximum allowable deployed nuclear weapons, inching the world closer to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s idealistic goal of a complete disarmament. In an ideal world, such a treaty could even include other nuclear powers, such as China which was invited to US-Russia talks to extend New START in June 2020, but declined to appear.

However, recent developments signal major concerns about whether such a treaty will ever come into existence. New START is set to expire in less than 3 years and Russia is no longer fulfilling its obligations. Amidst the war in Ukraine, relations between the western powers and Russia haven’t been this strained since the Cold War. Without a nuclear arms reduction treaty, fears are rising that the world will see another massive buildup in nuclear weapons. The coming years will be pivotal as we enter into a new world of arms control. It’s time to start over before fears of a new Cold War become reality. 


Author Biography: Austin Newman is a senior moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Christopher Newport University. 

Editor: Drew Weisberg