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Russia exits START II: What does it mean for the international arms control regime?

As Russia withdraws its commitments from the START II, the last remaining arms control treaty between Russia and the US comes to an end. Amidst fears of a new arms race and hopes of a new arms control treaty, the conflict between Russia and the West takes a new turn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made the announcement ahead of the completion of one year to the war in Ukraine

Within the last year, the war in Ukraine has taken many twists and turns. This war has questioned the whole realist-liberal dynamics and just like the other protracted armed conflicts around the world, the war in Ukraine has also dashed the hopes of immediate peace in the region. There are a plethora of reasons for this, ranging from inadequate peacemaking mechanisms to the involvement of threats of nuclear warfare. The moment the threat of nuclear weapons usage comes into the picture, it becomes a high stakes conflict and the reason for this is the fragility of the concept of deterrence itself.

While deterrence prevented usage of the weapons of mass destruction during the cold war, it heavily depends upon the perception of trust among the warring parties as well. The fact still remains that the need for a robust arms control infrastructure still exists as it did in the cold war era. Deterrence in itself could not guarantee a protection against nuclear warfare, there was a need to build legal mechanisms that would put the belligerent parties accountable to their commitments. This was precisely why the years of the Cold War were marked by the maximum numbers of arms control treaties.

This background is really necessary in order to understand the significance of the recent developments that took place in the backdrop of the Ukraine War. It is almost correct to term this conflict as Russia against the West owing to the immense footprint that the west has created in arming Ukraine itself. A hardcore realist would argue that steps like this, while taken under the garb of protecting the sovereignty of a state, in turn end up aggravating the conflict further. For a state like Russia, the reports of US transporting high end military equipment to Ukraine, would add to its threat perception, thereby also threatening the existing arms control infrastructure.

Suspension of the New START

One major product of the resulting trust deficit between Russia and the West has been the recent decision of the Russian administration to suspend its commitments under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II). Its predecessor, the START I was signed during the cold war era between the US and the USSR in 1991. The treaty basically limited the number of nuclear warheads and the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that each side could deploy. It capped the number of nuclear warheads to about 6,000 and the ICBMs to 6500 on each side.

This treaty lapsed in 2009 however, the importance to put a limit to the nuclear warheads still continued well after the cold war had officially ended. This led to the establishment of a new START mechanism that would place new limits to these weapons of mass destruction. The new START became monumental in bringing the concept of bilateral arms control into the forefront in an era that was characterised by any conventional interstate armed conflict back then.

This new START, which was signed in 2010 between the United States and Russia placed new limits to strategic and offensive weapons. The treaty required both the sides to limit their intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers to 700. The treaty also limited the nuclear warheads on each of these ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers to 1,550. The limits were also placed on the deployed and non-deployed launchers for ICBMs and SLBMs to 800.

It can be noted that the new START lowered the number of deployed nuclear warheads significantly as compared to the previous treaty. It was decided in 2010 that both sides would adhere to the limits and reduce the number of deployed weapons by 2018. Owing to the success of the treaty in placing substantial limits to the strategic and offensive weapons it was also later decided to extend the treaty to 2026. The verification mechanism of this treaty requires special attention. The treaty had put in place a detailed procedure for verification to ensure compliance to the treaty standards.

The treaty, even though it formed an integral part of the international arms control regime, did fall short of taking into account the contemporary realities of the world. This is essentially the backdrop of a whole set of international legal mechanisms that are rarely reviewed or assessed to update the commitments of the member states, the case in point could be other WMD control regimes such as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Biological Weapons Convention. When it comes to the bilateral mechanisms such as the START, the onus of making it relevant only lies on the two parties involved. In this case, the US and Russia are arguably at the worst point in their bilateral relationship over the last decades.

As Russia has now suspended its commitment to this treaty, a huge uncertainty looms over the international arms control regime as the only remaining bilateral treaty limiting strategic offensive arms between these two giants, comes to an end.

What next?

As the START II gets dissolved, it has created a vacuum in the arms control space and experts have cautioned against a possible arms race triggering between these two countries. There is a great possibility of this arms race reaching an unprecedented level of expansion owing to the vast technological advancements that have taken place over the last few decades. This marks a very contentious situation for not just the war in Ukraine but it can spill over to other conflicts wherein both Russia and the US have a strong stake, particularly those happening in the middle east.

While on one side people are mourning the death of the era of bilateral arms control treaties between US and Russia, or the erstwhile USSR as well, the most optimistic school of thought suggests that this might even signal a novel approach to limiting tactical and strategic offensive weapons. It is very important in this case to understand that Russia is not the only ‘culprit’ here as it chooses to back out of the START II. The United States had started this trend way back when it decided to suspend its commitment under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and before that, from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001.

While there is no doubt that the suspension of these cold war era instruments may signal a pivot to a more robust and contemporary bilateral mechanism, what blurs this hope is the degree of trust deficit that exists right now between the US and Russia. Russia, while constantly igniting threats of nuclear weapons usage in the present conflict, becomes a fragile party when it comes to the hopes of negotiating a strong agreement.

This makes it very important for the non-aligned countries at this point to take a stand in the favour of negotiating an agreement that would prevent the proliferation of nuclear warheads and deployed arsenals. While Russia and the US may or may not be ready to do a tightrope walk to stand on an agreement in a volatile time like this, it really depends on the rest of the international community to take the stand against these states that are not just threatening their own survival but also of the rest of the world as the two countries still possess the maximum number of nuclear warheads.


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