Is Russia shooting itself in the foot suspending New START Treaty?

Russia’s suspension of the New START Treaty is unlikely to impact the United States’ willingness to keep backing Ukraine, but it could certainly have an adverse long-term effect on Russia’s security, says Alexander Gabuev of Carnegie Politika. The treaty is more important for Russia than for the USA.

poetin loezjniki 21 febr 23One day after his State of the Union Putin showed up at a staged mass rally in support of the war at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow (picture Kremlin)

by Alexander Gabuev

Vladimir Putin’s state-of-the-nation address was primarily intended for Russian officials and the domestic audience, but it also contained an important message for the West and the United States. Moscow is suspending its participation in the New START nuclear arms control treaty, which has been a key stabilizing force in U.S.-Russian relations for more than a decade.

The signing of the treaty in 2010 was considered the main accomplishment of then U.S. president Barack Obama’s reset policy. Later, the swift extension of the treaty until 2026 in the first weeks of Joe Biden’s presidency offered hope that relations between Moscow and Washington would avoid spiraling into a major escalation. Now those hopes have been dashed. A few more moves in this direction will completely dismantle the Cold War system of strategic arms control.

There is no provision in the wording of the New START to suspend participation, which puts Moscow on shaky legal grounds. But such formalities have never bothered the Kremlin, and both chambers of the Russian parliament passed a law suspending the treaty the very next day after Putin had spoken.

At the same time, Moscow is making it clear that it’s not yet withdrawing from the treaty altogether. The Russian Foreign Ministry clarified that Moscow will 'continue to strictly comply with the quantitative restrictions stipulated in the treaty' and exchange notifications of ballistic missile launches with the United States. 

A few more moves in this direction will completely dismantle the Cold War system of strategic arms control

From both Putin’s address and the clarification by the Russian Foreign Ministry, it’s obvious that the reasons for suspending the treaty are purely political. This is the Kremlin’s response to what it views as the United States’ unacceptable conduct in Ukraine. Moscow believes that Washington puts a high value on the treaty, and may be forced into reducing its military and economic aid to Ukraine in order to keep the New START in place. But like so many of the beliefs about the outside world upon which the Kremlin has based its foreign policy in recent years, this is most likely incorrect.

Following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, President Biden immediately stated that one of the biggest U.S. goals in the conflict was to avoid a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. Before Russia’s direct aggression, Washington had trodden carefully and rationed its military aid to Ukraine, believing that any military campaign would most likely end in a swift Russian victory, and that all the United States would be able to do would be to contain the threat from Moscow by fortifying NATO’s eastern flank and supporting Ukrainian armed resistance in occupied territory. But after it became clear that Ukraine could defend its sovereignty and even liberate a significant part of its occupied territory, the United States and its allies started supporting Kyiv more actively. 

Blurred red lines

One of the main practical problems Washington faces is the blurred 'red lines' the Kremlin drew after the start of the war. Putin warned that any Western involvement in the war would trigger 'irreversible consequences', and reminded the world that Russia has nuclear weapons. Russian officials warned repeatedly that convoys of foreign weapons could become a 'legitimate target' for Russian strikes.

Later, Moscow believed that announcing the annexation of the occupied territories in September 2022 would deter its adversaries, since the Russian nuclear umbrella would extend to the newly annexed lands. Yet that didn’t stop the Ukrainians, who conducted a successful counteroffensive in the fall with massive support from the West.

Step by step, Ukraine, the United States, and their allies have cautiously tested and pushed back Russia’s red lines. It appears that President Biden and his administration still believe that those red lines exist and want to manage the risk of nuclear escalation very carefully, but they will no longer exercise self-restraint simply because Putin or other Russian officials are trying to intimidate the West.

The problem with the Kremlin’s red lines is that Moscow has been unable to defend them with the means it had at its disposal. Before the war, for instance, many in the West feared Russian cyberweapons, but they have proved to be less powerful than previously believed, and the West has been able to defend the cyberspace of both NATO and Ukraine itself. Meanwhile, the high-precision weapons that the Russian army pledged to use against military aid convoys from Poland turned out to be either not so precise after all, or simply too scarce to use often.

The gas war that the Kremlin launched against Europe has also done little to diminish support for Ukraine. A relatively warm winter and swift action taken by European governments and businesses, as well as their willingness to pay higher prices, allowed the EU to survive the heating season without any major upsets while maintaining virtually full gas reserves.

Finally, Russia reacted to painful losses like the damage to its bridge to Crimea and its withdrawal from the city of Kherson by launching a partial mobilization and savage assault on Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Those actions also failed to deliver the desired results. They killed dozens of civilians and inflicted enormous devastation on energy infrastructure, but Ukraine still has electricity and a functioning railway system. The effectiveness of Russian strikes will only diminish as Ukraine acquires greater missile defense capabilities. 

Nuclear blackmail 

When all else failed, therefore, Moscow concluded that blackmail over the New START was a way to force Washington to reconsider its approach. Moscow had already started refusing to allow U.S. site inspections and canceled scheduled meetings of the New START bilateral consultative commission. In the Kremlin’s calculus, all of these steps would force Washington to review its policies and seek a dialogue with Russia.

In reality, they could weaken Russia’s strategic position even further. Moscow’s suspension of the New START could be nothing short of a gift to those within the U.S. government and national security establishment who consider the treaty an outdated document preventing an adequate U.S. reaction to the growing threat from China. According to the Pentagon, by 2035, Beijing plans to triple its number of nuclear warheads to 1,500, which comes very close to the ceiling set by the New START for Russia and the United States.

The closer ties forged between Russia and China in the past few years further exacerbate the situation. Even though Moscow and Beijing are far from entering into a formal military alliance, their leaders are united in their struggle against American dominance. The two countries’ military cooperation is increasingly sensitive these days: take Russia’s commitment to helping China create an early warning missile defense system.

If the New START falls apart, the United States will not strive for parity with Russia and China combined, treating them as allies whose joint nuclear capabilities can be treated as one. Rather, Washington is more likely to seek asymmetric and cost-effective answers to retain its advantage while simultaneously containing Moscow and Beijing.

The New START treaty was more important to Russia than it was to the United States

Ultimately, Russia’s suspension of the New START treaty is unlikely to impact the United States’ willingness to keep backing Ukraine. But it could certainly have an adverse long-term effect on Russia’s security. 

Even if the Kremlin mistakenly thinks otherwise, the truth is that the treaty was more important to Russia than it was to the United States, considering the colossal gap in conventional weapons between the two countries that the war in Ukraine has laid bare. By leaving the treaty, Russia would potentially be joining a strategic arms race against the United States: a race it can’t possibly win, given America’s enormous military budget and technological and economic capacity.

This article was first published by Carnegie Politika.

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