When Putin announced on Tuesday the suspension of (but not withdrawal from) the New START treaty on the limitation of nuclear weapons, the news once again moved the Doomsday Clock forward. The apocalypse clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has since January been set at 90 seconds to midnight, the worst on record, never reached even during the Cold War.
The greatest distance from the apocalypse, 17 minutes to midnight, was when the first START treaty was signed by Bush Sr. and Gorbachev in 1991.
The suspension by Russia of the New START agreement is alarming because this was the only major bilateral treaty on nuclear disarmament left between Washington and Moscow, dating from the days of the Soviet Union and the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings of the 1980s, which had set up a constructive relationship on arms control that led to the end of the Cold War. At this critical moment, it is very significant to recall the 2019 withdrawal of the United States, decided by Trump, from the INF treaty to limit medium-range land-based missiles, signed by Gorbachev and Reagan in ’87.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed in Prague on April 8, 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. It entered into force on February 5, 2011, and was extended once for 5 years in February 2016 and a second time in February 2021, with an expected expiration in 2026.
New START aims to reduce strategic nuclear weapons and put a limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarines and bombers. It effectively reduced warheads by 30 percent over the previous treaty (Moscow 2002).
Why did Putin make this decision? The tsar accused not only the US but also NATO of not cooperating in the implementation of the START agreement. “I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty,” Putin said.
In fact, on August 21 it was Russia that blocked inspections under the agreement, as Moscow complained – whether rightly or wrongly – that its own inspection teams in the United States were encountering increasing difficulties due to sanctions. On the basis of New START, the two nuclear powers can conduct inspections of each other’s arsenals.
“Russia is not complying with its obligation under the New START Treaty to facilitate inspection activities on its territory,” a State Department spokesman complained in January. “Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of US-Russian nuclear arms control.”
In any case, amid mutual accusations and recriminations, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, the fear that the world will fall back into tremendous uncertainty with regard to nuclear weapons is growing once again. Furthermore, the clash over the START treaty is also reigniting the nuclear race, something that is even more serious today, compared to half a century ago during the Cold War, due to technological “advances” and also to new factors such as China and regional nuclear powers (Israel, Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan) that complicate the equation even more.
But there’s more: it’s not just strategic nuclear weapons that are a matter of concern. Less powerful nuclear weapons, called “tactical,” have been discussed during the war in Ukraine. These devices are meant to be used on the battlefield and destroy targets in a limited area. However, many of these warheads are more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Americans. Tactical nuclear weapons usually have yields between one and fifty kilotons and have devastating effects in areas of about five square kilometers. But experts say an attack with tactical atomic weapons would not bring military benefits and would expose Russia to severe retaliation.
“One thing is certain: the nuclear risk is there,” says Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, secretary of Pugwash, an organization of scientists for disarmament, “and even if it were only 5-10 percent, I would not risk testing it.” One can only agree.