Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during a national address Tuesday that he is suspending his country's participation in the New START Treaty, Moscow's lone nuclear arms control agreement with the United States.
Non-proliferation advocates responded to the move with alarm and condemnation as fears of a broader—and possibly nuclear—conflict in Europe remain elevated, with Russia's assault on Ukraine raging on with no end in sight.
"Suspending implementation of New START represents a dangerous and reckless decision from President Putin," said the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). "Russia must immediately return to full compliance with the agreement and continue to adhere to warhead limits."
Derek Johnson, a managing partner at Global Zero, wrote that while nuclear weapons inspections permitted under the treaty have "been on ice for a while" amid the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Putin's move could push the world "one step closer to nuclear anarchy" if it means Russia will no longer inform the U.S. of nuclear weapons movements and exercises.
Together, the U.S. and Russia control 90% of the world's nuclear weapons. The New START Treaty, which is formally set to expire in 2026 after both sides agreed to an extension in 2021, bars the two countries from deploying more than 1,550 nuclear warheads each, with inspections allowed to ensure compliance.
The U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty's terms by refusing to allow inspections of its nuclear sites, a charge Moscow has denied. As the Financial Timesreported earlier this month, "Russia and the U.S. suspended inspections during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and originally planned to renew them last year."
"But Russia abruptly pulled out of talks in Cairo on renewing them last November, then failed to meet a deadline to reschedule them last week, which the U.S. State Department said constituted two violations but not a material breach of the treaty," the newspaper added.
"Without a new agreement to replace New START, each side could double the number of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads within 2-3 years. It would be a senseless arms race to nowhere but increasing nuclear danger."
During his speech to Russia's Federal Assembly, Putin said he is pausing participation in the treaty because the U.S. and other NATO countries—through their military support for Ukraine—are attempting to "inflict a 'strategic defeat' on us and try to get to our nuclear facilities at the same time."
Putin responded specifically to NATO's statement earlier this month urging Moscow to comply with the terms of New START by allowing "inspections on Russian territory."
"Before we return to discussing the treaty, we need to understand what are the aspirations of NATO members Britain and France and how we take into account their strategic arsenals that are part of the alliance's combined strike potential," the Russian president said.
Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, warned that Putin's decision to halt Russia's participation in the bilateral treaty "makes it more likely that after New START expires, there will be no limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972."
"Without a new agreement to replace New START, each side could double the number of their deployed strategic nuclear warheads within 2-3 years," Kimball wrote. "It would be a senseless arms race to nowhere but increasing nuclear danger. It would be a race that neither side can hope to win."
In a statement, Johnson of Global Zero said that "there is no need for the United States to adjust its nuclear posture in response to this political announcement, and any move to do so only plays into Putin’s hands, who wants to stoke the fear of nuclear escalation."
"The United States and NATO should do all they can to reduce the danger of nuclear escalation, and remain both calm and coordinated in their collective response to Putin's reckless announcement," said Johnson.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Global Zero.