The Biden administration on Tuesday formally accused Russia of violating the New START arms treaty over what it said was Moscow‘s failure to allow inspections of weapons sites or agree to meetings on treaty disputes.
President Biden agreed to extend the New START treaty — one of the last major arms control treaties still in force — for five years shortly after taking office in January 2021 — without seeking changes or concessions from the Kremlin related to its strategic forces buildup. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine barely a year later has put bilateral relations in a deep freeze since then.
“Russia‘s refusal to facilitate inspection activities prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement.
In a formal “noncompliance determination,” the State Department stated on its website that “Russia has also failed to comply with the New START treaty obligation to convene a session of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) in accordance with the treaty-mandated timeline.”
The statement said Russia can quickly return to compliance with the accord by resuming inspections and holding a BCC meeting.
“There is nothing preventing Russian inspectors from traveling to the United States and conducting inspections,” the statement said.
The department in the report added that there are concerns about Russian compliance with limits on the number of warheads, and there was no way to monitor Russian claims on weapons totals.
“The continued lack of U.S. inspection activities in Russia poses a threat to the U.S. ability to adequately verify Russian compliance with the treaty limit on deployed warheads,” the report states. “As a result of Russia‘s close proximity to the warhead limit … and our inability to spot-check the accuracy of Russian warhead declarations, the United States is unable to make a determination that Russia remained in compliance throughout 2022 with its obligation to limit its warheads on deployed delivery vehicles subject to the New START Treaty to 1,550.”
The issue is not a technical violation of the deal, but was still a “serious concern,” the report said.
Even so, the State Department argued that preserving the treaty, first negotiated by the Obama administration, supports U.S. national security by constraining Russian strategic nuclear forces and permitting insights into its forces.
The landmark arms accord was approved by the Senate in 2010 and limits U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals to 1,550 deployed warheads, along with 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, submarine launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear arms. Each side was allowed 18 on-site inspections per year.
Disputes over compliance had been brewing for some time, and U.S. unhappiness over Russian treaty violations was first reported Jan. 25 by The Washington Times. Bruce Turner, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, argued then that Moscow was not in compliance with New START and that Moscow‘s suspension of inspections “undermines the treaty’s verification regime.”
Russia suspended on-site nuclear inspections in August, saying it was acting in retaliation for a U.S. ban on flights from Russia that was imposed after the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moscow also announced in November it was “unilaterally” suspending meetings of the New START bilateral commission.
In Moscow, Russia informed the United States on Monday that New START could expire in 2026 with no replacement accord, accusing Washington of seeking to inflict a “strategic defeat” of Russia in Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RIA state news agency that letting the treaty and its weapons limits expire “is quite a possible scenario.”
Russia has decried U.S. weapons aid to Ukraine’s armed forces in the war, now around $27 billion since last year.
Although Mr. Biden moved quickly to extend the current treaty in 2021, U.S. critics have long argued the treaty is deficient, citing Russia‘s buildup of new strategic arms and the treaty’s failure to limit Moscow‘s arsenal of thousands of shorter-range “tactical” nuclear warheads and bombs.
“Russia wouldn’t be flagrantly violating the New START Treaty if the Biden administration had followed our recommendation to extend the treaty in yearly increments,” said Marshall S. Billingslea, special envoy for arms control under former President Trump. “Instead, they extended the treaty for the full five years without any conditions, and in so doing, lost all leverage.”
The Biden administration has made arms control negotiations a key element of its national security policy. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s rapid, large-scale expansion of its nuclear arsenal have frustrated the agenda for the White House.
China is not a party to New START and has refused U.S. efforts to join new arms talks, saying its nuclear force is far smaller than those of the U.S. and Russia. But in the past several years, China’s military began building three large ICBM fields in western China where an estimated 360 new, multi-warhead missiles will be based.
Republicans on Capitol Hill said Russia‘s violations of New START highlight the rogue nature of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the need to move quickly with U.S. nuclear modernization efforts.
“This administration needs to hold Russia accountable for its failure to abide by its own agreement,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. “We must also begin immediately working with our allies to shore up our nuclear deterrence and assess how these violations fundamentally change our force posture abroad,” she added.
Ms. Fisher and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican, criticized the administration for extending New START, joined by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama and fellow Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado.
“Today’s announcement confirming Russia‘s violations of the New START treaty demonstrates that Moscow cannot be trusted to abide by any international agreement,” the four lawmakers said in a statement. “Russia has proven that it will ignore any limitation it deems inconvenient be it a legally binding treaty, or the internationally recognized borders of its neighbors.”
“Taken together, these flagrant arms control violations by Russia, strategic breakout from China, and our own diminishing nuclear deterrent signal severe peril ahead unless quickly countered,” they added, warning that the U.S. is “entering the most dangerous period since the Cold War.”
Tom Moore, a former Senate arms control specialist, said on Twitter that Russian suspension of inspections and blocking bilateral commission meetings is “clear noncompliance” that “effectively defeats the object and purpose” of New START.
But the State Department said arms control remains “an indispensable means of strengthening U.S., allied, and global security” and that it is “during times of tension when guardrails and clarity matter most.”
During the Trump administration, the United States withdrew from a separate arms treaty, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, after Russia deployed a new intermediate-range missile that the U.S. side said was in violation of the pact.
Questions also have been raised among arms experts over Russian compliance with New START. Critics say Russia‘s deployment of new strategic-level systems, including a nuclear-tipped drone torpedo, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and hypersonic weapons, while not covered by the treaty, has undermined the stability sought by arms agreements.