The New START Treaty, signed under President Obama in 2010, is the last operative strategic arms treaty between the United States and Russia. On Tuesday morning, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin said he would suspend Russian participation in the treaty as part of a nearly two-hour speech delivered in advance of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As The Guardian reports, Putin’s stated reason for withdrawing from the treaty is just as ludicrous as his claims leading to the illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. In this case, Putin claims that the United States wants to “inflict a strategic defeat on us and claim our nuclear facilities,” drawing a false equivalence between Russian withdrawal from Ukraine and an occupation of Russia.
It was all part of a rambling speech that included a lot of false claims and windy threats, but not a lot of hope that Russia was going to come out of this situation as anything but a heavily weakened, third-rate power.
What that suspension of the treaty actually means is unclear at the moment. New START limits the number of nuclear warheads that can be deployed by either the U.S. or Russia at 1,550* and caps the number of nuclear missiles at 700. Russia is allowed to keep thousands of additional warheads in storage and, in theory, might attempt to place more weapons in an active state. That could include mounting warheads on short- and medium-range missiles like those Russia has used to bombard Ukrainian cities, but Russia’s stock of such missiles has been seriously depleted. Unless Russia intends to begin throwing nuclear weapons at Ukraine, any medium-range missile pulled out of its dwindling supply to be fitted with a nuclear weapon would be one less for its regular destruction of civilian facilities in Ukraine.
Battered by the internal corruption of Putin and his oligarchs, Russia may be in a situation where North Korea and Iran are more capable of building new missiles for them than they are of putting anything together on their own. But even if they tap this new Axis of Desperation, numbers would likely remain very small.
On the warhead side of the equation, it’s probable Russia does have hundreds, if not thousands, more weapons available. Considering how relatively recent the beginning of New START was, and how that treaty cut the number of operational warheads essentially in half, Russia’s stockpile of such weapons should be significant and functional. That’s assuming that they were actually operational before the new agreement went into effect, and that Russia hasn’t left them to rot in the same fields where much of their tank stockpile was reduced to useless rust.
Presumably, Putin’s suspension of the treaty means that, at least for now, the inspection regime between the two nations is also suspended. New START introduced a much more robust inspection system and a regular exchange of data that made it more difficult for either side to “cheat” by keeping more warheads in a ready state. However, the U.S. is unlikely to lose much when it comes to intelligence about Russia’s nuclear capabilities, even if the inspections are suspended.
It’s not even clear that, in the short term, at least, Russia would attempt to move beyond the boundaries of the treaty. The most likely effect on Russia’s nuclear arsenal is … none at all.
The claims about the START treaty were just part of a lengthy speech much of which seemed both confrontation and heavily downbeat. Repeatedly, Putin presented the situation in Ukraine as if the West is seeking a “strategic defeat” of Russia. The goal, according to Putin, is a unilateral world in which everything is controlled by the United States. There was little actual mention of Ukraine itself, and throughout most of the speech, Putin treated the situation as if NATO were involved in an all-out war on Russian territory—as if a withdrawal from Ukraine were tantamount to surrendering Moscow.
Last week, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC that British intelligence estimated that “97% of the whole Russian army is in Ukraine.” That’s an astounding figure. Even if it’s an exaggeration, there’s certainly very little left outside of Ukraine that Russia can send to the conflict. And, despite a major mobilization that secured hundreds of thousands of additional raw recruits, Russia has so far been unable to win significant victories on the battlefield. The best it’s been able to do is hold on.
In fact, Russia was forced to withdraw from the regional capital of Kherson after it staged its mobilization, and despite over six months of fighting, Russian forces, headed by Wagner Group mercenaries, have still not captured the small city of Bakhmut, a location of very limited strategic importance.
That high level of investment and low level of success means that there is absolutely a strategic component of this confrontation that transcends Ukraine. Right now, Russia is fighting against exactly 0.0% of the military force of NATO. The best tanks, the best planes, longer-range missiles, and the most sophisticated systems have been largely denied the Ukrainian military (though a limited number of Western tanks and modern fighting vehicles will hit the field in the next two months). More importantly, NATO troops are not fighting in Ukraine. Russia is facing nothing like the air-supported combined arms tactics it would see if Western forces were actually engaged.
Right now, the whole of the Russian army is wrecking itself against what amounts to the Army of Ukraine backed by a tiny fraction of NATO’s available military systems. If it is forced to withdraw from Ukraine, NATO soldiers aren’t going to pursue Russian troops back to Moscow, because NATO soldiers aren’t involved in this thing at all. But Putin should definitely be concerned about exactly where the defeated Russian army marches next once they cross the border out of Ukraine. A defeat in Ukraine will leave Russia limp, economically damaged nation that has essentially disarmed itself on the field.
Fighting in the Bakhmut area is extremely intense at the moment. According to Ukrainian forces in the area, fighting both north and south of the city has reached a level not previously seen.
It appears that Russia is literally throwing everything it can at this area on Tuesday, seeking to achieve something that it can tout as a “victory” for the anniversary of the invasion on Friday—no matter how pyrrhic that victory may be.
*Under New START, bombers are treated as a single warhead, no matter how many weapons they actually carry.