What is the New START nuclear arms treaty? Pact explained as Putin pulls Russia out of US nuke agreement

Vladimir Putin has suspended Russia’s participation in its last nuclear arms pact with US, saying the treaty could no longer be kept separate from the conflict in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has suspended participation in Russia’s last nuclear arms pact with United States, saying the treaty could no longer be kept separate from the Ukraine war.

In his State of the Nation speech on Tuesday morning, the president announced Russia would suspend its participation in the New START nuclear weapons treaty with the US. Putin accused Ukraine of starting the Russia-Ukraine war, and said Russia “used force to stop it” in the address.

He went on to lay the blame for the war with the West, saying they "let the genie out of the bottle" and plunged the world into chaos. “Human sacrifice and tragedies are not accounted by them... They must carry on stealing from everyone, disguising themselves with slogans of democracy and freedom,” he said.

While Russia has not yet pulled out of the treaty entirely, the move is expected to deal a substantial blow to international efforts to limit the arsenals of the world’s largest nuclear powers.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has suspended its last major nuclear arms pact with the US in a speech on Tuesday (Photo by VADIM SAVITSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images).Russian president Vladimir Putin has suspended its last major nuclear arms pact with the US in a speech on Tuesday (Photo by VADIM SAVITSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images).
Russian president Vladimir Putin has suspended its last major nuclear arms pact with the US in a speech on Tuesday (Photo by VADIM SAVITSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images).

What is the New START treaty?

The  New START treaty caps the number of strategic nuclear weapons both the United States and Russia are allowed to deploy - or make ready for battle. It limits them to 1,550 deployed warheads, 700 deployed missiles, and 800 intercontinental ballistic missile launchers, submarine-based launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments - deployed or non-deployed.

The treaty also means both sides are allowed to monitor the other’s deployed nuclear arsenals, with up to 18 inspections a year. These were paused during the Covid-19 pandemic, and talks between Moscow and Washington on resuming inspections were due to take place last November until Russia postponed them, Reuters reports.

The treaty was signed in 2010 by then-US President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, and was aimed at the strategic reduction of both countries’ arsenals of nuclear warheads, after decades of tensions.

Why has Russia taken this step?

In his almost two hour-long speech, Putin took aim at Nato’s support for Ukraine, saying the treaty could no longer be kept separate from the war and “other hostile actions of the West against our country”. He claimed the West wanted “to inflict a strategic defeat on us and claim our nuclear facilities”.

“Now, through Nato representatives, they are putting forward, in fact, an ultimatum - you, Russia, must fulfil everything that you have agreed on, including the Start treaty, and we will behave as we please,” he said.

The Russian leader has frequently justified his invasion of Ukraine by accusing western countries of threatening Russia - a claim they say could not be further from the truth, saying Moscow’s forces attacked Ukraine unprovoked.

Putin claimed the West wanted “infinite power,” and that the Ukrainian people had become “hostages of their western masters” who occupied the country in political, economic and military terms, stating that “the regime is not serving their national interest. They are serving the interests of foreign powers.”

Putin’s speech comes just one day after US President Joe Biden made his first visit to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year. Biden said Putin was “dead wrong” to think the West’s support for Ukraine would not last, as he promised $500m worth of military aid to Ukraine and additional sanctions against Russian elites.

What does it mean for the world?

Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher in the weapons of mass destruction and other strategic weapons programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, told The Guardian this was “a big deal”.

“Suspension of the treaty is not equal to withdrawal but in reality, it could become really close over time,” he said. Baklitskiy believed Russia would “probably” stick to the treaty limits for the time being, but it would be harder for the US to make sure they were complying. He suspected the US would suspend its participation as well.

“One silver lining is that the Russian decision is political and can be easily reversed if the overall political relations change…The problem, of course, is that there is no change of political relations in sight.”