The nuclear risk is on the rise as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that Moscow was suspending its participation in the last remaining treaty limiting Russian and US nuclear weapons. The New START treaty, signed in 2010, limits the number of Russian and US deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Now, it may be beyond repair, risking a new arms race parallel to the war in Ukraine, in which neither side can rely on the stable, predictable framework that successive nuclear agreements have built for more than 50 years.
This decision greatly complicates the delicate calculations that undermine mutual deterrence between the two countries, while also prompting other powers such as China, India, and Pakistan to build up their nuclear arsenals. Nuclear experts said there is no provision in the treaty for either side to “suspend” their participation, as they said Moscow was doing – they only have the option of backing out.
According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has a total of 5,977 nuclear warheads, while the United States has 5,428. William Alburke, director of strategy, technology and arms control at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that the demise of the treaty could lead to warhead numbers multiplying, potentially creating a “use or lose” dilemma in which a denser concentration of an opponent’s weapons presents a more attractive target.
Putin justified the Russian move by saying that it was “absurd” for the United States to demand the right to inspect Russian nuclear sites while NATO was helping Ukraine attack them. He was apparently referring to what Russia said in December about Ukrainian attacks on its Engels airfield near Saratov, where Russian strategic bombers are based. Putin said, without providing evidence, that NATO experts had “equipped and modernised” the drones to conduct the strikes.
If New START was abandoned, it would mark a return to Cold War-style speculation about an adversary’s capabilities and intentions. This would create a much more volatile situation between the two parties, and even more so the risk of any kind of nuclear use. Both analysts said it was concerning that Putin had flagged the possibility that Russia could resume nuclear weapons testing, though they said Moscow would not take the step unless Washington first did so.
In the event that the two sides failed to renew the treaty before it expires in February 2026, it would mark the end of more than half a century of arms control pacts between the two sides, and send a signal to other existing and would-be nuclear powers. This could be much more dangerous than the Cold War because it could have many more players racing up to higher numbers, which would be terrible for global security.