The Last Existing U.S.-Russia Nuclear Treaty Could Soon Fail

New START is on the ropes after years of neglect and abuse from Moscow and Washington.
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U.S. Department of Energy photo.

Russia signaled to the U.S. on Monday that the world may soon see the end of nuclear-arms control, decades long agreements between nations that have helped limit the production of weapons that can end civilization. New START, an Obama-era treaty that limits the number of nuclear missiles Moscow and Washington can deploy, will expire in 2026. According to Russia, renewing that treaty will depend on whether or not the U.S. seeks the strategic defeat of Russia in Ukraine.


"The entire situation in the sphere of security, including arms control, has been held hostage by the U.S. line of inflicting strategic defeat on Russia," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. “We will resist this in the strongest possible way using all the methods and means at our disposal."

Part of that resistance might mean holding enforcement of the New START treaty hostage. Signed in 2010, the treaty limits Russia and America's deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each and deployed missiles and bombers to 700 each. As part of the treaty, each country agreed to inspections to verify that they’re abiding by the treaty.

America and Russia control 90% of the world’s nuclear arsenal and have used treaties to control and limit the deployment of those nukes for decades. The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 ended above ground nuclear testing, the Interim Agreement on Offensive Arms of 1972 stopped both countries from deploying new nukes, a revision of this treaty in 1979 further limited each country's deployed arsenal.

New START is a sequel, of sorts, to a treaty that began negotiations under Ronald Reagan called Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Reagan was famous for pursuing an arms build up and antagonizing Russia, but nuclear weapons frightened him. After watching the TV movie The Day After, he became depressed. “My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war,” he wrote in his diary


It was a promise that didn’t bear fruit until after the end of his presidency, but START I and START II limited nuclear weapon deployments throughout the 90s and into the early 2000s. For a while, the U.S. was even dismantling Russia’s nuclear warheads and using the uranium to power U.S. power plants.

Obama pursued a renewed nuclear arms control treaty with Russia during his presidency, which resulted in New START. After Trump took office, he told Putin it was a terrible treaty during their first phone call and spent the next four years delaying the treaty’s enforcement and dragging his feet about renewing it. 

In 2019, the U.S. left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The INF was another Reagen-era treaty that banned all of the two nation’s land based nuke launchers that had a range of 500 to 5,000 kilometers. The U.S. pulling out of the INF meant that New START was the only remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries, and it was on life support.

New START would expire in 2021 if both countries didn’t decide to renew it. Russia signaled that it wanted to negotiate and Trump demanded a new, better treaty that included China. Beijing reminded America that, at the time, it had around 300 nukes and that the U.S. had more than 3,000. It declined to participate in negotiations.

Biden righted the New START ship as much as he could when he took office. On the day of his inauguration, Russia said it would love to talk to a more reasonable president. After negotiations, the two countries decided to renew the treaty for five years, putting its eventual end date in 2026.

Then Russia pushed its invasion of Ukraine from the Donbas towards Kyiv. Since then, Moscow has used New START to harass the U.S. on the world stage over its support of Ukraine. The two were scheduled to meet in Cairo in November of 2022 to discuss the treaty and its enforcement, but Moscow didn’t show. “In all areas, we note the highest level of toxicity and hostility from Washington,"  Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Telegram at the time. "As part of the all-out hybrid war unleashed against us, almost every U.S. step towards Russia is subject to a pathological desire to harm our country wherever possible."

Ryabkov’s new comments about the eventual dissolution of the treaty in 2026 are part of a recent theme. He told RIA that the end of the treaty is “quite a possible scenario.”

The crumbling of international nuclear arms treaties is another sign that the world is closer to nuclear war than it’s been in decades. Russia is building new nuclear weapons and threatens nuclear annihilation as it wars in Ukraine. The U.S. is modernizing its nuclear forces, updating old systems, and signaling to the world that it’s ready to drop the bomb too.