The tug of war of nuclear disarmament between US and Russia | World

Russia is keen to deliver a double message: “temporarily” the United States will no longer be able to oversee Russian nuclear arsenals, the Kremlin announced this week. However, the country’s Foreign Ministry promised to stick to the terms of the New START agreement, whose “unique role” it said it cherished, as an “important instrument for preserving international security and stability.”

This is the first time the Kremlin has suspended American inspections, and the move shows how the war in Ukraine has compromised relations between the two powers. On the ministry’s website, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says: what triggered the step was the US announcement of an inspection visit in the coming days, which would constitute a “declared provocation” in the context of current tensions. binational.

It should be clarified: reciprocal inspections have been suspended since 2020, not due to geopolitical conflicts, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A US State Department spokesperson drew attention to this fact, adding that it was necessary to maintain this important aspect of binational cooperation despite tensions.

China displays DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, which can reach any point in the US, in 2019 photo (Photo: Thomas Peter / Reuters)

“Unilateral Advantage” for the US

The New START (Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty) was signed in 2010. In it, Moscow and Washington commit to reducing the number of their nuclear warheads to 1,550; and that of launch systems – such as intercontinental missiles, missiles installed on submarines and bomber planes – at 800 maximum. To ensure this, the agreement allows each party to carry out up to 20 inspections per year in the co-signatory country.

From the point of view of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the current situation would give the Americans “unilateral advantages”, as Russia would be “deprived of its right to inspections on US territory”. And here comes the invasion of Ukraine, albeit only indirectly.

The war itself – with Russia on one side as the aggressor and the US on the other side as Ukraine’s supporter – is no reason for Moscow to suspend inspections – at least it is not presented as an official justification. The Russians only point out that, due to Western sanctions, their inspectors would have great difficulty entering the US.

In addition, its employees there would be in danger of health, due to the new high of infections by the coronavirus. If the current problems are resolved, the ministry continues, it will “immediately” return to allowing inspections in Russia.

A US military assistant carries nuclear launch codes — Photo: REUTERS

New START is currently the latest in a series of disarmament initiatives between the world’s two major atomic powers. In the 1990s there were two such treaties: START-I ended in 2009, START-II never entered into force, and the result was the current agreement.

Already in the 1970s, the US and the Soviet Union closed nuclear disarmament pacts, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty, from which Washington unilaterally withdrew in 2002. In 2019, under Donald Trump, the same happened with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The following year, the republican president announced the withdrawal of the Open Skies Treaty, which allowed flights of clarification as a measure to establish mutual trust.

New START is the last remnant in this line of bilateral nuclear disarmament agreements between the two powers. However, its future is also uncertain: recently extended for a maximum period of five years, it initially runs until 2026. And in that, nothing should change, with or without war in Ukraine or sanctions, say the Russians.

Use of nuclear weapons more likely than in the Cold War

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an event in Ankara, Turkey (Photo: Umit Bektas/REUTERS)

But what will happen after 2026? Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently complained that Washington has not proposed new negotiations. About a week ago, US President Joe Biden said his administration would be ready to negotiate a follow-up deal. However, the Russian war against Ukraine represents an attack on the pillars of the international order, he noted, urging China to also participate in an eventual post-New START pact.

China’s atomic arsenal is much smaller than that of the United States or Russia. In its 2022 annual report, the Stockholm peace research institute Sipri estimates China’s total warheads at 350. But the country is rapidly gaining ground and – just in the face of Western apprehensions that Beijing is invading Taiwan – Biden is keen to involve the Asian power in disarmament talks.

However, China rejects the proposal, as does Moscow so far. In the past, the Russians have argued that this would also have to include French and British atomic weapons, which total almost 500 warheads.

According to the Sipri report, the current contingent of nuclear warheads worldwide – less than 13,000 – is considerably smaller than in the 1980s, during the Cold War, when there were almost 70,000 artifacts in the various national arsenals. However, this retreat is far from reassuring, as technological modernization compensates for the numerical reduction.

Today, nuclear weapons are much more accurate, and the development of “mini nukes” – which do not destroy an entire country, but rather aim to provide a geographically circumscribed tactical advantage in the context of combat – makes the use of atomic weapons more likely today. than at that time.

The Sipri report points out that, at the beginning of 2022, there were “clear signs” that the gradual reduction of the world’s nuclear arsenals, recorded since the end of the Cold War, “has come to an end”. Furthermore: “All the atomic powers are expanding or modernizing their arsenals, and most of these states are intensifying their rhetoric towards the use of nuclear weapons, giving them a more important role in their military strategies. A very alarming trend. ”

In the context of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, Moscow has made it clear that it does not rule out the use of nuclear weapons.

A Russian soldier guards the largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on August 4, 2022. — Photo: Alexander Ermochenko/ Reuters

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