The Death of Nuclear Arms Control Treaties

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A generational crisis in international nuclear arms control law was already looming when, on February 21, 2023, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would suspend its participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).  New START, a bilateral nuclear arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S., was already scheduled to terminate by its terms on February 4, 2026. Russia’s suspension of its participation in the treaty, the practical implications of which are still emerging, moves that crisis even closer to realization. 

That’s because New START is the last nuclear arms control treaty in effect between the U.S. and Russia – the last vestige of the intricate web of nuclear arms control treaties which were crafted through immense investment of effort both during and after the Cold War, and which are rightly credited with facilitating the coordinated drawdown of sockpiled and deployed nuclear weapons by the erstwhile superpowers from their Cold War combined high of over 65,000, to the present number of around 13,400.  New START provides that each side’s deployment of strategic nuclear weapons systems be limited to 1,550. It further provides that deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and nuclear tasked heavy bombers be limited to 700 for both sides, and that deployed and non-deployed ICBM and SLBM launchers and heavy bombers be limited to 800 for both sides. If New START is allowed to expire without a replacement or successor treaty, there will be no international legal limits on stockpiling or deployment of nuclear weapons by the U.S. or Russia for the first time since 1972.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were tentative diplomatic efforts afoot to begin negotiation of a successor treaty to New START. But even those initial efforts now seem politically dead. While nuclear arms control agreements were concluded during the height of Cold War tensions, this time around there does not seem to be the necessary agreement in the two capitals of the ongoing value of maintaining nuclear weapons stockpiling and deployment limits.

This is a dangerous time for there to be such uncertainty as to the enduring value of nuclear arms control law. Putin has resorted to nuclear weapons saber rattling on a number of occasions over the past year, seeming through these threats to attempt (unsuccessfully) to dissuade further Western conventional arms support to Ukraine. The most recent such nuclear escalation was Putin’s announcement on March 26, 2023 that Russia plans to station some of its tactical nuclear weapons at bases on the territory of its ally Belarus, representing a forward deployment of Russian nuclear weapons to the border of Poland.

Again, even prior to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, it was by no means certain that a successor treaty to New START would be agreed. Issues of deep disagreement already existed at that time between the U.S. and Russia regarding the scope, covered weapons technologies, and membership of any such potential successor agreement. But with no active diplomacy in process to work through these thorny issues, it now seems highly unlikely that a treaty succeeding New START, and maintaining its limits on deployed strategic nuclear weapons, will be in effect between the U.S. and Russia upon the expiry of New START in February 2026. 

Observers are already writing about a new age of nuclear arms control efforts beyond the era of formal treaties, in which the focus will be on diplomatic “risk reduction measures,” undertaken unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally through either formal or informal modes of commitment. Whether these forms of coordination and potential cooperation on nuclear weapons possession and deployment will be as effective in preserving the guardrails of nuclear readiness as have fifty years of formal arms control treaties, is a subject of ongoing debate and not-insignificant doubt.

And what of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the nuclear ban treaty which entered into force on January 22, 2021?  As I explain in my new article entitled Disarmament is Good, but What We Need Now is Arms Control, while the TPNW should be welcomed as a contribution to nuclear disarmament law, it should not be confused with nuclear arms control agreements which, while related, are importantly distinct in role and purpose. Similarly, as I explain in the article, the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) contains nonproliferation obligations and a disarmament obligation, but not arms control obligations.

If and when New START expires by its terms, or becomes effectively dead through mutual suspension, we will be in a situation unseen in a generation – one without international legal limits on the stockpiling and deployment of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and Russia. In light of Russia’s nuclear threats and its aggressive war in Ukraine, this is not a good time to lose the guardrails on nuclear readiness to which we have grown accustomed through fifty years of international nuclear arms control treaty law. The challenge of designing a normative regime to meet the political and security realities and needs of international nuclear arms control efforts going forward is daunting. Especially since no one knows what Washington and Moscow are willing to accept.   

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