The U.S. State Department has said that Moscow can’t just leave the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Russia and the U.S. if it wants to. Unilaterally leaving the treaty, it said, is a violation of the treaty itself. According to Washington, Russia is still bound by the treaty even if it said it’s not.
“Russia’s claimed suspension of the New START Treaty is legally invalid,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement released on Wednesday. “As a result, Russia remains bound by its obligations under the treaty.”
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is an Obama-era treaty that limited the amount of nuclear weapons both countries could deploy. The long term goal of the treaty was to reduce the amount of deployed nuclear weapons in the world.
Russia unilaterally pulled out of the treaty on February 21. "I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty," Putin said at the time. During the same speech, Putin claimed that the West had started the war in Ukraine and threatened to conduct new nuclear missile tests. Russia last tested a nuclear weapon in 1990.
As part of the treaty, both countries were required to open their doors to inspections. Russia had been delaying meeting its obligations under the treaty. At first it blamed COVID, but inspections have not resumed. “Since the easing of COVID-related restrictions, the United States has made it crystal clear to Russia that we are prepared to host Russian inspectors,” the State Department said in its press release. “Russian inspectors have the necessary visas, Russian treaty-designated airplanes have viable air routes to transport inspectors to the United States, inspectors can also use commercial air travel to reach U.S. territory, and there are no sanctions that prevent Russia from fully exercising its inspection rights.”
New START was in trouble long before Putin pulled out. Trump ended a lot of arms control treaties while he was president and threatened to pull out of New START, insisting that China join the treaty as a requirement of its renewal. The U.S. and Russia have the overwhelming majority of nuclear weapons in the world and Beijing pointed this out when it declined to join the treaty.
Putin pulled out of the treaty days after Biden made an unannounced visit to Kyiv and Moscow had made it clear that America’s support of Ukraine is central to its dissatisfaction with the treaty. “The strong U.S. and international response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine does not absolve Russia of responsibility to fulfill its legal obligations under New START,” Washington said. “Russia’s noncompliance and purported suspension of the New START Treaty will not stop the United States from continuing to fully support Ukraine. That reality is irrelevant to the utility of the treaty and Russia’s ability to continue participation in it.”
That may be true, but the reality of Russia’s violation of the treaty may also be functionally irrelevant. It’s up to Washington to enforce it. New START has always been about helping the world avoid a devastating nuclear war and it’s unclear what America, let alone the State Department, can do to make Russia start inspections again if it doesn’t want to.
“Nuclear stability is especially important in a time of crisis,” the State Department said. “And the United States will continue working to maintain it.”