Russia confirmed a month after it suspended the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that it has cut off transmitting treaty-required data on Russian strategic nuclear forces to the United States.
“All forms of notifications, all data exchange, all inspection activities, in general, all types of work under the treaty are suspended,” stated Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov March 29.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov maintained March 28 that Moscow will continue to adhere to New START’s central limits of no more than 1,550 strategic warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles.
“Our decision to comply with the strategic offensive arms ceilings set in the treaty is nothing more than a gesture of goodwill,” he said. Russia will also continue to send notifications of launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and sea-launched ballistic missiles under an ongoing 1988 U.S.-Soviet agreement.
The United States responded by describing Russia’s suspension of New START as “legally invalid.”
“As a result, as a lawful countermeasure intended to encourage Russia to return to compliance with the treaty, the United States will likewise not provide its biannual data update to Russia,” announced National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson March 28.
Washington will maintain its strategic nuclear arsenal at New START levels and continue to provide more general public information on its arsenal and daily notifications on the basing location of treaty-accountable missiles and upcoming strategic exercises. The Pentagon has repeatedly assessed that it sees no indication of changes in the Russian strategic forces posture nor any reason for the United States to change its posture.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to suspend the treaty in a Feb. 21 speech. The Russian parliament formalized the suspension a week later and stipulated that only Putin could decide if Moscow should return to the treaty.
U.S. President Joe Biden called Putin’s move “a big mistake.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized that “we remain ready to talk about strategic arms limitations at any time with Russia irrespective of anything else going on in the world or in our relationship.” Blinken met briefly with Lavrov at the Group of 20 (G-20) foreign ministers meeting March 1–2 in India to reinforce this message and urge Russia to reverse its decision.
However, the Russian Foreign Ministry declared that “it is no longer possible to maintain business as usual with the United States and the West in general, both as a matter of principle and regarding arms control, which is inseparable from the geopolitical, military, and strategic reality.”
If New START expires in February 2026 with no replacement arrangement, U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon arsenals will be left with no limits. Both Moscow and Washington could then potentially double the size of their arsenals. —SHANNON BUGOS, senior policy analyst
An analysis of the U.S.-Russian disagreement over New START can be found here: “Understanding the Dispute Over New START,” Arms Control Today, April 2023
Russia Could Put Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Belarus by July, Putin Says
The construction of a special storage facility in Belarus for Russian tactical nuclear weapons will finish by July 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 26.
“We will protect our sovereignty and independence by any means necessary, including through the nuclear arsenal,” Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko emphasized March 31. He also noted that Minsk and Moscow “will decide and introduce, if necessary, strategic weapons.”
Putin did not specify when – or exactly where – Russia would move the nuclear warheads themselves, and the U.S. Defense Department said that it has seen no indication Putin had “made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around.”
On April 2, Russian Ambassador to Belarus Boris Gryzlov suggested that the tactical nuclear weapons “will be moved to the western border of our union state and will increase the possibilities to ensure security,” before moving to the new Belarusian storage facility upon its completion.
Putin compared the arrangement with its close ally to the NATO nuclear sharing arrangement, under which the United States deploys an estimated 100 tactical gravity bombs across six bases in five NATO countries. “The United States has been doing this for decades. They have long placed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies,” he argued.
NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu denied the comparison, saying, “Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments.”
Multiple experts expressed significant doubt that, if actually under construction, the storage site would be ready to host nuclear weapons by July or even host the weapons at all, instead staying empty.
In addition to the storage facility, Putin said that 10 Belarusian combat aircraft have successfully been reequipped to carry nuclear weapons – though the exact type of aircraft remains unclear.
Belarus and Russia struck the initial deal on transferring nuclear weapons in June 2022, at which time Putin said that Russian-made Su-25 jets in service with Belarusian Air Force would be retrofitted. However, conflicting statements from both countries and media reports have given rise to confusion, as some suggest that the aircraft could be Su-24 bombers or Su-30SM jets.
Lukashenko first said that Belarus completed reequipping its aircraft in August. Russia will have begun training Belarusian crews April 3, according to Putin.
The Belarusian armed forces announced in February that Russia had handed over dual-capable, short-range Iskander-M missile systems, which Putin confirmed in March.
UN Security Council Debates Russian Plans in Belarus
After Putin detailed the status of its plans with Belarus, Ukraine requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council March 31, during which numerous countries strongly denounced Moscow’s “nuclear sharing” concept.
“The Kremlin is ready to threaten the world with nuclear apocalypse,” remarked Ukrainian Representative to the United Nations Sergiy Kyslytsya.
UK Deputy Permanent Representative James Kariuki described the Russian-Belarusian deal as Putin’s “latest attempt to intimidate and coerce,” which “has not worked and will not work.”
Meanwhile, the Japanese Permanent Representative Ishikane Kimihiro stated that “The record of 77 years of non-use of nuclear weapons must not be broken by Russia.”
For more statements during the UN Security Council meeting, see: “Risk of Nuclear Weapons Use Higher Than at Any Time Since Cold War, Disarmament Affairs Chief Warns Security Council,” United Nations, March 31, 2023
Putin’s Behavior Ignites Fresh Condemnation
Russia’s plan to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus fueled renewed criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric and behavior on nuclear matters over the war in Ukraine, such as with his nuclear threats and suspension of New START.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg commented Feb. 21 that, with the treaty’s suspension by Russia, the “full arms control architecture has been dismantled.”
The Group of 7 (G-7) countries warned Russia Feb. 24, the one-year anniversary of its illegal invasion of Ukraine, that “any use of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons by Russia would be met with severe consequences.”
The Group of 20 (G-20) also criticized Russia’s behavior during the March meeting of foreign ministers in India. The outcome document included two articles from the G-20 leaders’ declaration in November 2022, one of which demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine and the other condemned any threats of nuclear weapons use.
The U.S. intelligence community determined in a March 8 annual report that Putin’s numerous threats to employ nuclear weapons throughout the war demonstrate Russia’s increased reliance on its nuclear arsenal, especially as its conventional forces are used up.
“Throughout its invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has continued to show that it views its nuclear capabilities as necessary for maintaining deterrence and achieving its goals in a potential conflict against the United States and NATO, and it sees its nuclear weapons arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of the Russian Federation,” concluded the report.
Members of the U.S. Congress chimed in as well, with some calling for Russia to return to New START compliance and others for the Pentagon to prepare to increase the numbers of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons.
China Tempers Criticism of Russian Nuclear Threats
Chinese President Xi Jinping further tempered any criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s numerous nuclear threats during an in-person meeting between the two leaders in March.
“The Russian side speaks positively of China’s objective and impartial position on the Ukraine issue,” noted the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s readout.
During a joint news conference, Putin issued a clear warning that, if “the West really…decide[s] to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian,” then Russia will have to respond. “What I mean is that the collective West is already starting to use weapons with a nuclear component,” he concluded, implying the potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia in response to a threat to the country’s existence or to nuclear use by a Western country.
Xi has lightly criticized Putin in the past, but increasingly less so as Russia’s war in Ukraine goes on.
The two leaders issued a joint statement at end of their meeting March 22, which highlighted the close ties between China and Russia and reaffirmed the 1987 Reagan-Gorbachev principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg dubbed Putin’s support of the principle an “empty promise,” coming as it did shortly after he further detailed the deal with Belarus on tactical nuclear weapons in March.
“We what we need to watch closely is actually what Russia is doing,” Stoltenberg added. “And that’s exactly what NATO allies are monitoring closely.”
On New START’s suspension, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said only that “China notes the differences on compliance between the two countries, and hopes the two sides can properly resolve the differences.”
Two days later, China released a 12-point peace plan for Ukraine that included a broad provision that “Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.”
However, Beijing did more strongly reject the Russian-Belarusian plans, with Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN Geng Shuang saying, “We call for the abolition of the nuclear-sharing arrangements and advocate no deployment of nuclear weapons abroad by all nuclear weapons states, and the withdrawal of nuclear weapons deployed abroad.”
Countering China Requires More Nuclear Weapons, U.S. Lawmakers Say
Concerns over the Chinese nuclear arsenal have spiked among U.S. lawmakers in light of a notification from U.S. Strategic Command that Beijing has a greater number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launchers than Washington. This is most likely due to the construction of at least 250 new missile silos across three sites in China that were discovered in 2021.
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported on a Jan. 26 letter addressing the notification from Gen. Anthony Cotton, head of Strategic Command, to four Republican members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Cotton’s letter also noted that the United States possesses more ICBMs and more nuclear warheads on ICBMs than China.
The four members – Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) – argued that the notification on ICBM launchers “should serve as a wake-up call for the United States.”
“We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China,” they wrote in a Feb. 7 statement. “This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.”
However, the Federation of American Scientists, one of the organizations that discovered some of the new silos, cautioned that “it is unknown how many of the new silos will be filled with missiles, how many warheads each missile will carry, and how many warheads China can actually produce over the next decade.”
TPNW Scientific Advisory Group Meets for the First Time
The newly established Scientific Advisory Group for the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) met for the first time in March.
The group aims to engage with the broader scientific and technical community to provide advice and support the goals of the treaty. Fifteen eminent international scientists and experts on nuclear weapons nominated by states-parties and appointed by the president make up the group.
TPNW states parties established the group during its first meeting in June 2022.
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