Now that the Russia-Ukraine War is into its second year, there are apprehensions in many quarters that it may galvanise into some World War III. The ramification of the war between Russia and Ukraine is not confined merely to these two countries, but the global community is feeling the heat due to the rise in the prices of food grains as well as energy prices.
However, just before the war’s first anniversary, the apprehensions reached a decisive phase when Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his address to the Federal Assembly on February 21 that Russia was suspending its membership of the New START Treaty. He stated, “I am compelled to announce today that Russia is suspending its membership in the New START Treaty.”
Russia’s suspension of its membership has raised many pertinent points, thus impacting global disarmament processes. At the same time, apprehensions are emanating from many quarters that there is a signal from Russia that it is preparing for a nuclear war against the West led by the United States. The question that arises here is whether Russia may use a nuclear weapon as a last resort in case of a war? Hence there is a need to study the implications of Russia’s suspension of New START Treaty.
The Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement directly blamed the United States for the suspension of the treaty. A ministry official stated “the United States is now openly seeking to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on Russia, while tensions encouraged by Washington go far beyond the Ukraine crisis with the United States and the US-led West trying to harm our country at every possible level, in every sphere and region of the world”.
Though in the same statement, Foreign Ministry of Russia further outlined, “In order to maintain the necessary level of predictability and stability in the nuclear missile area, Russia will take a responsible approach and will continue to strictly comply with the quantitative restrictions stipulated in the Treaty for strategic offensive arms within the life cycle of the Treaty.”
One can draw three inferences from the official statement of Putin and Russian Foreign Ministry.
1) The statement of Putin indicates that the United States is responsible for the present strategic impasse caused by the current War.
2) By suspending itself from the treaty, Moscow may be giving an implicit threat to the United States.
3) Russia wants to maintain a ‘strategic choice’ in deploying nuclear weapons against the United States in case of necessity by suspending its membership from the treaty.
Looking at the course of events, it appears that Russia is keen to confront the West and NATO countries directly by deploying nuclear missiles which can lead to World War III.
In this regard, one may recall that when Putin announced Russia’s suspension from the treaty, many strategic experts believed this might affect global disarmament. One may recall that the New START Treaty was enacted in February 2011, replacing the old Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT)of 2002. Both the New START Treaty and SORT had primary objective of capping the nuclear missiles of Russia and the United States. Thus, it aimed to ensure some nuclear parity regarding deploying nuclear warheads.
Originally, the duration of the Treaty was 10 years till 2021 but it was extended for another five years till 2026. The Treaty permits “on-site inspections and exhibitions, data exchanges and notifications related to strategic offensive arms and facilities covered by the Treaty, and provisions to facilitate the use of national technical means for treaty monitoring”. At the same time, the Provision of the Treaty limits the deployment of “1500 nuclear warheads, 800 ICBM Launcher and heavy bombers” as reported by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). A recent Federation of American Scientists(FAS) study titled Estimated Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories shows that Russia has 5,977 and the United States 5,428 nuclear warheads.
Though Russia suspended its membership in the New START Treaty last month, the United States and Russia had accused each other of violating the Treaty even before the onset of the Russia-Ukraine War. One point on which both the United States and Russia are having differing perspectives is that there is no “transparency” over the Treaty’s implementation. This generates a sense of mutual apprehensions and security dilemma for both. Another contentious issue between the two sides is the on-site inspection of nuclear arsenals.
The present Russian decision has only aggravated the crisis. During the current war, Moscow and Washington accused each other of violating the treaty more glaringly. The missile attacks against each other by both Russia and Ukraine have also led to a growing escalation of mutual suspicion. This is a fact that Ukraine is currently using the missiles given to it by the United States. In this regard, Russian officials are singling out the attack by the Ukrainian missiles on Russia’s Engel’s airbase. Similarly, as reported in the press, Russia was accused of subsequent violations of the provisions of the treaty by the United States. All these developments pose more significant challenges to the global disarmament process.
Russia’s suspension of its membership from the treaty led to a cautious response from its main adversary — the United States. US Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken said, “The announcement by Russia that it’s suspending participation in New START is regrettable and irresponsible. We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does. We’ll, of course, make sure that in any event, we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies.”
On the other hand, Russian President’s Spokesperson Dmitry Peshkov blamed both the West and NATO for aggravating the situation.
“If only they wanted, they would have sat down at the negotiating table. There would have been very complex, positional, sometimes irreconcilable talks, but they would have been underway. But they refused,” Russian official news agency Sputnik quoted Peshkov as saying.
The above statements of both Bilken and Peshkov reflect the uneasiness and mistrust between Washington and Moscow that contributes to the present strategic impasse. However, the immediate consequence of the suspension of the treaty is that there may be an uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear missiles on the part of both Russia and the United States. Russia’s suspension of the treaty is a reminiscence of the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) in 2019.
Even during the Cold War’s heyday, the United States and the erstwhile Soviet Union developed institutional mechanisms to halt the proliferation of missiles like PTBT and NPT. The recent stand-off between Russia and the United States over the START will aggravate the uncertainty. It may contribute to a new challenge to the global disarmament process and escalate further arms race. As reported in Moscow Times, Putin just after announcing Russia’s suspension from stated, “We won’t be the first to conduct them. But if the US does, then so will we”.
As reported in Moscow Times, Putin also immediately ordered Russia’s nuclear agency Rosatom to be ready in case of any future eventuality.
Taking a cue from the present stand-off between Russia and the United States over the current nuclear question, many countries like North Korea, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and China may go for further proliferation of nuclear weapons without any scrutiny. This may aggravate the security challenges to global geopolitics and cause a rise in the illicit proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
In a nutshell, it can be underlined that better sense should prevail and Russia and the United States should reach a consensus regarding nuclear weapon disarmament and an understanding of its ramifications. Steps should also be taken by both Moscow and Washington to resolve other outstanding issues, including the present war between Russia and Ukraine amicably. Peace is paramount for the global community and both Russia and the United States should understand this.
(Nalin Kumar Mohapatra is Assistant Professor at Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed are personal to the author.)