What is the New START nuclear deal and why did Russia suspend it?

As Putin freezes the treaty between Russia and the US, we look at the deal and the implications of the suspension.

President Vladimir Putin has said Russia is suspending participation in the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States after accusing the West of being directly involved in attempts to attack its strategic air bases.

“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty,” he said on Tuesday.

What is the New START treaty?

START stands for “Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty” and is the last remaining nuclear arms control pact between Russia and the US.

The treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia can deploy, was signed by former US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.

It came into force in February 2011 and was extended in 2021 for five more years after US President Joe Biden took office.

Under the agreement, Moscow and Washington are committed to the following:

  • Deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and a maximum of 700 long-range missiles and bombers.
  • A limit of 800 intercontinental ballistic missiles in deployment.
  • Each side can conduct up to 18 inspections of strategic nuclear weapons sites yearly to ensure the other has not breached the treaty’s limits.

Inspections under the agreement were put on hold in March 2020 because of the COVID pandemic.

Talks between Moscow and Washington on resuming inspections were due to take place last November in Egypt, but Russia postponed them and neither side has set a new date.

 US President Barack Obama (L) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) at Prague Castle in Prague April
Obama and Medvedev sign the New START treaty in Prague in 2010 [File: Jason Reed/Reuters]

Why is Russia suspending it?

Russia said earlier this month that it wanted to preserve the treaty, despite what it called a destructive US approach to arms control.

However, on Tuesday, the Russian foreign ministry blamed the US for the decision to suspend participation, accusing Washington of non-compliance with its provisions and of trying to undermine Russia’s national security.

Moscow said the fundamental geopolitical realities underpinning the treaty’s signing had changed.

It said the provisions had become one-sided, favouring the US, saying it had found ways to violate its central limits on the number of nuclear warheads that can be deployed.

Putin emphasised that Russia was only suspending, not terminating, its participation in the treaty.

“The decision to suspend participation in New START can be reversed,” the foreign ministry said.

“To do this, Washington must show the political will and make good-faith efforts for general de-escalation.

“We are convinced that the potential of the treaty in terms of its contribution to strengthening international security and strategic stability is far from exhausted,” it added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that the Russian move was “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it made the world more dangerous and urged Putin to reconsider.

What are the implications?

The US and Russia have checks to ensure that their nuclear missiles cannot be used accidentally and together account for about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads.

On Tuesday, a US Department of State spokesperson said it was “unclear” if Putin’s move to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START nuclear treaty will have a “practical impact”.

“We haven’t seen any reason to change our nuclear posture, our strategic posture just yet,” Ned Price told CNN.

Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Brussels, said Russia’s announcement was probably aimed at an international audience as, while Europe and the US are largely in agreement on support for Ukraine and moves towards negotiations, countries from other regions are more divided over these issues.

“That is the difference that Putin was potentially trying to exploit in his speech,” he said.

Experts also stressed that Russia is not yet leaving the treaty.

“Suspension of the treaty is not equal to leaving the treaty; I assume there will be no Russian build-up above the treaty limits,” Andrey Baklitskiy of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research said on Twitter.

“But there will be much fewer opportunities to verify this (only national technical means), so compliance will be disputed,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies