Two months ago, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would “suspend” its participation in New START, the only remaining nuclear arms control agreement between the US and Russia.
The announcement once again allowed the Kremlin to promote the idea that Western support for Ukraine is pushing the world toward a nuclear holocaust.
But despite all the noise, this Russian threat had no effect. The deal’s suspension gave the Kremlin only one thing: a quasi-legitimate reason to end mutual inspections of nuclear stockpiles, a key part of the New START agreement signed in 2010.
For the past three years, Russia has sought to keep American inspectors away. And the reason behind this is not Moscow’s eagerness to support nuclear energy, but rather the opposite – hiding the reduction of its nuclear arsenal under pressure. Russian nuclear stockpiles have been gradually declining for years.
Older delivery systems and warheads produced decades ago naturally exhaust their operational life.
And today’s production of new missiles, strategic bombers or nuclear submarine systems is not strong enough to compensate for the reduction, reports the reporter from The Kyiv Independent.
According to experts, the decommissioning of Russian nuclear weapons has begun and will continue at least until the 2030s.
But admitting this decline is impossible for the Kremlin, which places nuclear weapons at the center of its intimidation efforts and war propaganda, both domestically and internationally.
Due to the lack of on-site inspections, there is little certainty about how much of the nuclear capability that Russia claims is deployed is actually operational.
The US and the international community still have ways to get estimates on the state of Russian stockpiles.
The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) was the third in a series of Russian-American agreements to reduce both nations’ post-Cold War nuclear arsenals and build mutual trust.
The treaty entered into force in 2011. It set several limits on the US and Russian arsenals.
According to the treaty, none of the signatories could possess more than 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and bombers, and could not deploy more than 1,550 nuclear warheads; no more than 100 additional non-deployed nuclear-tipped missiles and bombers were allowed.
In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union and the US each had over 2,000 nuclear launch systems and over 10,000 missiles.
According to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), thanks to years of arms reduction efforts, the global amount of nuclear weapons has decreased from 70,300 in 1986 to 12,500 in early 2023, that is, by 80%.
The reduction of the nuclear arsenal was to be completed in the next seven years, until 2018.
However, New START does not cover low-yield tactical nuclear weapons or retired nuclear warheads that are intended for destruction.
In a way, the treaty was beneficial to Russia. Until the signing of New START, the number of delivery systems that Russia was deploying was below the limit (611 against the maximum of 700), although it had to withdraw a number of additional warheads.
This meant that Russia could even increase the number of missiles and bombers deployed. And it could safely enjoy nuclear parity with the US without spending resources on developing new weapons.
Despite fierce opposition from Republicans, the administration of US President Joe Biden in early 2021 extended the treaty until 2026.
At the end of March 2023, according to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, Russia had 1,674 strategic warheads deployed and ready for use.
In addition, it has an estimated 2,815 warheads that are in reserve, non-deployed and possibly tactical. More than 1,400 warheads are believed to be retired and non-functional.
For its part, the United States has almost the same number of deployed strategic warheads – 1,670.
Combined, the two nations have a total of 11,133 warheads, which includes deployed, non-deployed and retired munitions. This represents 86% of the global inventory of stockpiled warheads available for military use and 89% of the global nuclear arsenal, according to FAS figures.
According to estimates by the Federation of American Scientists, the stock of deployed Russian warheads, as well as the American one, remain at parity. Although somewhat above the New START threshold, both the US and Russia do not exchange data or publicly disclose any information about their nuclear stockpiles.
According to the US State Department, in its most recent notification in September 2020, Russia stated that it has 1,447 deployed strategic warheads, which corresponds to the New START threshold.
But it could just be numbers on paper.
In late January 2023, a report issued by the Department directly accused Russia of violating the treaty for the first time.
In his speech to the State Duma on February 21, Putin announced that Russia would “suspend” the agreement, even though the treaty does not contain any provision to this effect. Putin accused the West of being “directly involved” in the Ukrainian attacks, as he bombarded Ukraine’s critical infrastructure with missiles.
The following week, the Kremlin turned the “suspension” into a law passed by the Russian parliament.
However, almost immediately after the announcement, the Russian Ministry of Defense assured that, despite the “suspension”, Russia intends to respect the stockpile limits of the New START.
In addition, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow will continue to notify the US of its nuclear tests.
In his speech to the Russian parliament on February 21, Putin also issued a new threat, saying that the Russian military would resume full-fledged nuclear tests, but only if the US did so first. Even though the US has never ratified the corresponding international treaty since 1996, the US has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 and has never expressed an intention to resume the practice.
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