Putin, in a Strategic Blunder, Gives America a Chance To Catch Up in the Arms Race
Why should America care if Russia announces it is suspending compliance with a treaty it is already violating?
In the year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seems that every few weeks a senior Kremlin official or an organ of the state-run press threatens a nuclear strike to scare America and its allies from aiding the country Russia has been trying to destroy.
This week was no exception. President Putin, in a defiant and delusional speech marking the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war, announced that Russia would be suspending participation in the remaining nuclear treaty Moscow has with America.
Known as New Start, the accord limits the strategic nuclear weapons both sides can field to 1,500 apiece and accommodates mutual inspections of nuclear sites. In February 2021, Moscow and America agreed to renew the treaty for another five years.
Marshall Billingslea, who led negotiations under President Trump to renew New Start, tells me, “Now that Russia has effectively abrogated the treaty it frees the United States to address the fact that both Russia and China have been engaged in a nuclear arms race against us.”
Mr. Billingslea says the Biden administration should call Mr. Putin’s bluff. “It’s clear he is trying to extract more concessions on Ukraine,” he said.
Mr. Billingslea’s is not bad advice. Since the Cold War, Democratic presidents have prized arms control agreements with Moscow as a way of stabilizing the relationship. At the same time, there is a long track record of Russian cheating.
This is what happened with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and an agreement that allowed America and Russia to use surveillance aircraft to monitor each other’s military sites. Russia had repeatedly violated both pacts, and President Trump withdrew from those treaties after failing to persuade Moscow to comply.
A similar pattern has held for New Start. Consider that there have been no site inspections under the treaty since 2019. Last month, the State Department informed Congress that Russia was already out of compliance with the treaty.
In this respect Mr. Putin’s threats are hollow. Why should America care if Russia announces it is suspending compliance with a treaty it is already violating?
So far President Biden has not signaled he will limit support for Ukraine or make any concessions to accommodate Mr. Putin’s latest gambit. When asked Wednesday, the president said Mr. Putin’s announcement was a mistake.
That is good news. Mr. Biden could go further and acknowledge that the limitations in New Start disproportionately constrain America. More than half of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is composed of tactical weapons, meaning they have a shorter range and are designed to be used on a battlefield.
New Start applies only to strategic weapons that travel longer distances and are used to destroy an adversary’s population centers. America has about 200 tactical nukes, whereas Russia has 2,000.
Another problem with New Start is that it does not address Communist China. In November the Pentagon released a report that estimated China could field as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
New Start may stabilize the arsenals of Russia and America, but it does nothing to constrain Chinese proliferation. Any new treaty — if American even wants one — would be illogical if it failed to bring China into the fold.
Finally, Mr. Biden could end the perception in Moscow that America desires arms control agreements more than Russia. This was a result of the strategy of President Obama in 2010, when his administration negotiated the first New Start treaty.
At the time, it was the centerpiece of a policy known as reset. The Obama administration justified a soft line on Russia’s menacing of its neighbors because of Russia’s willingness to negotiate the New Start and assist American diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Going forward, Mr. Biden and his successor could make clear that negotiating an arms control agreement is not in and of itself a concession to be rewarded. America would reduce its arsenal in exchange for verifiable reductions from its adversaries.