Soviet President Vladimir Putin just made another move showing the world that he is ready to stand against all the allies of the West. The Russian government recently suspended the arrangement that allowed inspectors from the United States and Russia to visit each other’s nuclear weapons sites.
This has been in place since the 2010 New Start treaty was established and this move is a major assault on arms control.
The promise of mutual inspections was suspended during the Covid pandemic as a health precaution, but a foreign ministry statement on Monday gave additional reasons for not starting them back again.
Russia argues that sanctions imposed by the United States because of the invasion of Ukraine kept Russian inspectors from traveling to America.
“There are no similar obstacles to the arrival of American inspectors in Russia,” the statement said. “The Russian foreign ministry raised this issue with the relevant countries, but did not receive an answer.”
There has not been a response yet from the U.S. State Department describing any imbalance in nuclear weapon inspections that happened due to the sanctions imposed. A spokesperson for the department said, “The United States is committed to the implementation of the New Start Treaty, but we keep discussions between the parties concerning treaty implementation confidential.”
The 2010 treaty was extended for five years in February of 2021. It limited the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 for each country and it also imposed limits on delivery systems for each country.
The New Start treaty is the last remaining arms control treaty that is in effect between the two superpowers. The mutual verification clauses are seen by many nations as vital in building shared confidence and preventing a nuclear miscalculation.
Jon Wolfsthal was a senior director for arms control and nonproliferation in the Obama administration’s national security council. He believes that at a time when the United States and Russian relations are tense, anything that disturbs stability and predictability with nuclear issues is a real concern. He also said, “However, we continue to exchange large volumes of information with Russia about their nuclear weapons. The hope is that this is just a political road bump and not a major new obstacle to stability.”
The one positive step Russia is taking has to do with notifications to the United States on any movements or changes in the status of its nuclear arsenal. They have stalled inspections, but according to Rose Gottemoeller, former Nato deputy secretary general and undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, they have been “stepping up” notifications.
Gottemoeller, who now lectures at Stanford University, said “Notifications come in to something called the National and Nuclear Risk Reduction Centre, which is a center headquartered in the department of state. They told me one day in May they got 18 notifications. They’ve never seen that number of notifications before. So it seems like the Russians, at least the Russian nuclear forces, have been intent on trying to continue implementation for mutual predictability and confidence.”
But most agree that inspections are crucial for checking whether a country’s notifications on their nuclear weapons are even accurate.
Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based independent analyst on Russian nuclear forces and a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, said that inspections are not the only way to verify the accuracy of notifications.
“First, the volume of notifications is sufficiently large so you should be able to detect serious discrepancies. Then, there are always national technical means – they cannot see everything, of course, but serious discrepancies will be detected … So, I wouldn’t say that all is lost for arms control, even though, of course, it’s a rather unfortunate decision on Russia’s part,” Podvig said.
Putin’s actions are a little bit more than “unfortunate.”