Russia has failed to fully comply with the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) because of its refusal to allow on-site inspections and to reschedule a meeting to discuss treaty concerns, according to a U.S. assessment released in January.
Senior Russian officials have accused the United States of “politicizing nuclear arms control,” saying that Washington “would have to adjust its policy towards Russia to move to a constructive arms control agenda.”
In August, Moscow prohibited U.S. on-site inspections of its nuclear weapons-related facilities subject to the treaty over complaints about reciprocal access. Russia called off a planned meeting of the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) in Egypt in November. Moscow initially said the meeting was only “postponed,” but now refuses to reschedule the meeting because of U.S. rhetoric and actions related to the war in Ukraine. Russia’s actions blocking New START inspections, Washington says, rise to the level of noncompliance.
“The United States cannot certify the Russian Federation to be in compliance with the terms of the New START Treaty,” states the annual U.S. State Department report on the status of New START implementation that was published and sent to Congress Jan. 31.
In particular, “Russia’s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control moving forward,” said Cara Abercrombie, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for defense policy and arms control for the U.S. National Security Council, during a Feb. 1 event hosted by the Arms Control Association.
Russia quickly denounced the U.S. report.
“Responsibility for the escalation of the New START issues lies entirely with Washington,” said Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov Feb. 1. “There can be no progress on arms control without the United States reconsidering its policy of inflicting strategic defeat on Russia.”
Washington also noted in the New START implementation report a concern, not a determination of noncompliance, with Russian adherence to the treaty’s central limit of no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.
“The continued lack of U.S. inspection activities in Russia poses a threat to the U.S. ability to adequately verify Russian compliance with the treaty limit on deployed warheads,” says the report. “The United States is unable to make a determination that Russia remained in compliance throughout 2022 with its obligation to limit its warheads.”
In the treaty’s latest data exchange in September, Russia had 1,549 warheads, one less than permitted. However, Washington assesses that Russia likely remained under the New START warhead limit at the end of 2022.
Antonov emphasized that Russia intends “to continue observing the central limits of the Treaty and exchanging notifications and relevant data.”
Despite the report’s findings, the State Department determined that Russia’s noncompliance with the treaty does not threaten U.S. national security interests and that there does not exist “a strategic imbalance” between the world’s two largest owners of nuclear weapons.
“The New START Treaty continues to constrain Russian strategic nuclear forces and provides insight into Russian forces that the United States would not have without the Treaty,” according to the assessment.
A senior State Department official told The Wall Street Journal Jan. 31 that “we continue to strongly value the treaty” and that “both of these instances of noncompliance are easily remedied.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) emphasized its continued view of “effective arms control as an essential contribution to our security objectives” in a Feb. 3 statement. However, the alliance said, “Russia’s noncompliance undermines the viability of the New START Treaty.”
Four Republican members of Congress released a joint statement criticizing both Russia for violating the treaty as well as the Biden administration for “naively” agreeing in 2021 to extend the treaty until 2026.
“This episode…highlights why we must continue to modernize our existing nuclear deterrent and adapt our future forces to meet the dual threats of Russia’s increasing aggression and China’s massive nuclear buildup,” wrote Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.); Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) Jan. 31.
Three Democratic senators responded to the State Department report by highlighting their past support for U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.
However, “to be very clear, compliance with New START treaty obligations will be critical to Senate consideration of any future strategic arms control treaty with Moscow,” stated Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a Feb. 1 joint statement. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst
Background: U.S.-Russian Impasse on Resuming Inspections
The U.S. charges of Russian noncompliance with New START center on two issues that have caused difficulties for months: the Russian rejection to host U.S. inspectors for on-site verification procedures and the refusal to reschedule a meeting of the treaty’s implementation body.
Washington and Moscow mutually agreed to pause on-site inspections due to the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. The two countries have been in communication about a potential resumption of the inspections since mid-2021 but could not strike an agreement to do so.
In August 2022, Russia informed the United States of its decision to prohibit inspections at Russian facilities subject to the treaty after Washington had transmitted a notice of intent to conduct an inspection. Russia claimed that the U.S. attempt to restart inspections created “unilateral advantages” for the United States.
Moscow cited Part 5, Section 1, Article 5 of New START’s protocol to justify the prohibition, which allows for a temporary exemption of certain facilities from inspections for reasons not inconsistent with the treaty. The State Department’s report assesses that “Russia has not cited any specific conditions at any specific facilities” that would allow for such an exemption.
The dispute over inspections was intended to be a primary topic of discussion at the scheduled meeting of the treaty’s implementing body, the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), to begin Nov. 29 in Cairo, Egypt – leading to the second U.S. concern of Russian noncompliance. A day before the meeting, Moscow announced its decision to “unilaterally postpone” the meeting.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented Nov. 29 that “the decision was made at the political level.” Ryabkov also emphasized that the BCC meeting was a postponement, not a cancellation – though he later said, “It’s just been canceled.”
In mid-November, Ryabkov expressed Russia’s willingness to meet with the United States, so long as the dialogue focused only on strategic stability. Yet, by early December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attributed Moscow’s cancellation of the BCC meeting, at least in part, to the impossibility of discussing “strategic stability today while ignoring everything that is happening in Ukraine.”
Amb. Bruce Turner, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, criticized Russia Jan. 24 for refusing “to reschedule the session within the timeframe prescribed by” New START. According to the treaty’s protocol in Part 6, Section 3, Article 2, a BCC meeting must take place no later than 45 days after the requested date.
On the same day, Amb. Gennady Gatilov, Russian representative to international organizations in Geneva, spoke to the importance of the treaty staying in effect but did not address the canceled meeting.
“New START keeps a window of opportunity to continue the dialogue on strategic stability with an emphasis on developing a possible new agreement to replace this Treaty,” remarked Gatilov.
Yet, Ryabkov remarked on the potential collapse of the treaty Jan. 26, saying such a result would cause “deep regret.” A few days later, the deputy foreign minister described the current status of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control as “deadlocked.”
Putin Denies Making Nuclear Threats
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied wielding any threats of nuclear use over the past year while reiterating that Moscow will use “all means at our disposal” to defend itself and its allies.
“We are well aware of what nuclear weapons are,” said Putin Dec. 7. “We have them, and they are in a more advanced and up-to-date condition that the weapons in the possession of any other nuclear power.”
However, “we have not lost our minds,” he continued. “We are not going to wield these weapons like a razor running around the globe.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called out the falsity in Putin’s denial Dec. 9. “As the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage in deeply irresponsible nuclear saber rattling,” he said.
Austin emphasized the need for nuclear-armed countries “to avoid provocative behavior and to lower the risk of proliferation and to prevent escalation and nuclear war,” and reiterated the U.S. commitment “to pursue new arms control arrangements with willing partners operating in good faith.”
Since the start of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly threatened to employ nuclear weapons against those seen as interfering in the war and against perceived risks to Russia’s “territorial integrity” or existence.
The Russian president also detailed in a Dec. 21 speech developments with nuclear-capable weapon systems, such as the heavy intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat, achieved in 2022, as well as those expected in 2023.
“We will continue maintaining and improving the combat readiness of the nuclear triad,” said Putin.
A majority of the Group of 20 states and close Russian partner China criticized Moscow in November for its threats of nuclear weapons use in Ukraine.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined in December to hold an annual meeting with Putin because of these threats. Yet, the two leaders held a telephone call Dec. 16, during which Modi emphasized dialogue and diplomacy as the only way forward in Ukraine, according to the prime minister’s office.
Belarus and Russia Signal Cooperation on Air Crew Training
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko agreed Dec. 19 to train Belorussian aircraft crews to handle air-based nuclear weapons.
Belarus “is now working with the Russians to train our crews to pilot planes carrying special warheads,” announced Lukashenko during a joint news conference, referring to nuclear warheads.
Putin endorsed the announcement, saying that “it is also possible to continue implementing President Lukashenko’s proposal on training the Belarusian Army combat aircraft crews that have been reequipped for potential use of air-launched ammunition with special warheads.”
The two leaders stated in June 2022 that Russia and Belarus would explore the transfer of nuclear-capable weapons to the Russian client state. Lukashenko said in August that Belarus had completed reequipping its aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.
Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, tweeted in December that, despite these developments, “Nothing suggests moving of actual nukes to Belarus so far.”
Chinese Nuclear Arsenal Climbs Above 400, Pentagon Estimates
China’s nuclear arsenal has likely surpassed 400 operational nuclear warheads, according to an annual U.S. Defense Department assessment published in November. This marks a faster pace of growth of the Chinese arsenal than the Pentagon has previously anticipated.
Beijing has undertaken plans “that exceed really their previous attempts, both in terms of the scale, the numbers, and also the complexity and technological sophistication of the capabilities,” said a senior U.S. defense official at a press briefing Nov. 29.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian quickly denounced the report. “We have exercised utmost restraint in developing nuclear capabilities,” he said Nov. 30. “We have kept those capabilities at the minimum level required by national security.”
The Pentagon’s assessment projected that, if China continues a similar pace of growth, “it will likely field a stockpile of about 1,500 warheads by its 2035 timeline.” This statement extrapolates the department’s estimate from the previous year, which said that Beijing may be able to amass 700 warheads by 2027 and 1,000 by 2030.
China is continuing to build three silo fields for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which will include at least 300 new silos in total for two Dongfeng missile variants. Open-source intelligence analysts discovered these fields in 2021.
The defense official also commented that Beijing remains reluctant to talk about nuclear arms control, which is “negatively impacting global strategic stability — an area of increasing global concern.”
In a later briefing, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder further emphasized that “the challenge here is, the more proliferation there is, the more concerning it is, the more destabilizing to the region it is.”
Ryder said that, in order to bolster regional and global stability, the Pentagon will nevertheless aim to “maintain an open dialogue to ensure there’s transparency and that we understand what the intent is behind this.”
In Congress, a group of Republican members sent a letter Dec. 5 to Adm. Charles Richard, the then head of U.S. Strategic Command, requesting an unclassified memo on China’s nuclear arsenal.
“We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China’s growing military might,” remarked Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who signed the letter. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the then ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) also signed.
The new head of U.S. Strategic Command, Ge. Anthony Cotton, responded Jan. 26, reporting that the number of China’s land-based and mobile ICBM launchers exceed the number of U.S. ICBM launchers. Beijing remains below Washington in the number of active ICBMs and their associated warheads.
A provision in the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act requires a classified and an unclassified notification sent to Congress if China surpasses the United States with respect to the number of active ICBMs, the number of warheads equipped on ICBMs, or the number of ICBM launchers.