- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2023

President Vladimir Putin‘s announcement Tuesday that Russia was “suspending” its adherence to the New START arms treaty is the latest blow to the Biden administration‘s battered arms control agenda.

In announcing that Russia was no longer bound by the treaty’s limits on nuclear warheads, missiles and launchers, Mr. Putin tried to place the blame on Washington for the effective demise of the last major arms control agreements between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. 

“They want to deal us a strategic defeat and are meddling with our nuclear facilities,” Mr. Putin said in his annual State of the Nation address Tuesday, just days before the one-year anniversary of Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine. “In this context, I have to declare today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Arms.”

The treaty was set to expire in 2021 and President Biden extended U.S. observance of the treaty limits until 2026 in one of his first acts after taking office.

But that has not stopped both Russia and China from continuing the large-scale nuclear force buildups they have pursued in recent years. The Pentagon also is modernizing its nuclear triad with new missiles, bombers, and submarines, leaving the road ahead on arms control highly unclear.

Despite the Putin announcement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Moscow will continue for now to observe the caps on its nuclear forces outlined in New START. The treaty limits the United States and Russia to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 long-range missiles and bombers.

Russia intends to adhere to a responsible approach and will continue to strictly observe the quantitative restrictions provided for by the New START treaty within the life cycle of the treaty,” the ministry said in a statement.

Critics said Mr. Biden’s decision to extend the existing treaty in 2021 was taken without seeking concessions from Moscow. So-called tactical nuclear warheads and some of Russia’s new strategic weapons are not covered by the current New START accord.

Sen. Tom Cotton said Mr. Putin killed New START on Tuesday after having violated it “with impunity” for years.

“President Biden never should have extended this treaty, which handcuffed the United States while allowing Russia to cheat and China to expand its arsenal,” the Arkansas Republican said. “Russia’s actions underscore the urgent need for U.S. nuclear modernization to meet the threat of our adversaries’ growing stockpiles.”

The administration announced in 2021 that it was reducing the role of nuclear arms in U.S. strategic doctrine while seeking new, enhanced control agreements as a central plank of U.S. national security strategy. The Russian leader’s suspension of New START is the latest setback for that approach.

The New START treaty was already in serious trouble before Mr. Putin’s declaration Tuesday.

The State Department announced last month that Russia violated the agreement after failing to permit inspections of weapons sites. In a formal “noncompliance determination,” the department also said it suspected Russia is exceeding limits on deployed warheads.

During a stop in Athens, Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized Mr. Putin’s announcement, telling reporters it was “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible.”

“We’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does,” he added. “We’ll of course make sure that in any event, we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies.”

The New START breakdown came just days after Mr. Blinken warned China’s government not to supply arms and ammunition to Russia based on indications the Chinese were preparing to supply weaponry to aid Mr. Putin’s troubled war in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin said the U.S. was to blame for the collapse of a string of arms control deals, saying it was the Trump administration that withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and a treaty on short-range missiles, “unilaterally tearing up the fundamental agreements that maintain world peace.”

“For some reason, they did it. They do not do anything without a reason, as we know,” Mr. Putin said.

In August 2019, the Trump administration withdrew from the INF treaty after U.S. intelligence said Moscow had violated the treaty by developing since 2014 and ultimately deploying an offensive, land-based cruise missile known by NATO as SSC-8 with a range of 1,550 miles.

Mr. Putin also said Moscow would resume nuclear testing if the United States were to do so. The Biden administration has no plans to conduct underground nuclear tests.

The liberal Arms Control Association said Mr. Putin’s action did not mark the end of New START.

However, the announcement “makes it far more likely that, after New START expires, there will be no agreement limiting U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.”

Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, a Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Putin‘s suspension wasn’t a surprise because Russia has been violating New START for years.

“But make no mistake — this announcement is yet another dangerous example of Vladimir Putin trying to use nuclear saber-rattling to coerce other nations,” Ms. Fischer said. 

“Our two greatest adversaries, Russia and China, are both refusing to participate in any meaningful arms control agreements or dialogue,” she added. “If the administration needed another reason to finally work with Congress to shore up our nuclear deterrence, this is it. It’s time to stop shortchanging our national defense and put forward a strong budget that accelerates the modernization of our nuclear triad.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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