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Russia suspends only remaining major nuclear treaty with US

Move could lead to end of global ban on nuclear weapons tests in place since the end of the Cold War
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Dmitry Astakhov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Tuesday that Moscow was suspending its participation in the New START treaty — the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the United States — sharply upping the ante amid tensions with Washington over the fighting in Ukraine.

Speaking in his state-of-the-nation address, Putin also said that Russia should stand ready to resume nuclear weapons tests if the U.S. does so, a move that would end a global ban on nuclear weapons tests in place since the end of the Cold War.

Explaining his decision to suspend Russia’s obligations under the 2010 New START treaty, Putin accused the U.S. and its NATO allies of openly declaring the goal of Russia’s defeat in Ukraine.

“They want to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on us and try to get to our nuclear facilities at the same time,” he said, declaring his decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the treaty. He later sent a draft bill on the pact’s suspension to the Kremlin-controlled parliament, which is expected to quickly rubber-stamp it Wednesday. The document says that it will be up to the Russian president to resume Moscow’s participation in the pact.

Putin emphasized that Russia was not withdrawing from the pact altogether, and hours after his address, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the country would respect the caps on nuclear weapons set under the treaty.

Russia also will continue to exchange information about test launches of ballistic missiles per earlier agreements with the United States, the ministry said.

Noting that the decision to suspend Russia’s participation in New START could be reversed, the Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. to deescalate tensions and create a proper environment for the treaty’s implementation.

The New START treaty envisages caps on the number of nuclear weapons and broad inspections of nuclear sites. Putin said such inspections don’t make sense after the U.S. and its allies declared the goal of dealing Russia a military defeat in Ukraine and helped the Ukrainian military mount strikes on Russian nuclear facilities.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken deplored Putin’s move as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible,” noting that “we’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does.”

He said that “we’ll, of course, make sure that in any event we are postured appropriately for the security of our own country and that of our allies,” but emphasized that “we remain ready to talk about strategic arms limitations at any time with Russia irrespective of anything else going on in the world or in our relationship.”

“I think it matters that we continue to act responsibly in this area,” Blinken told reporters on a visit to Greece. “It’s also something the rest of the world expects of us.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also voiced regret about Putin’s move, saying that “with today’s decision on New START, full arms control architecture has been dismantled.”

“I strongly encourage Russia to reconsider its decision and respect existing agreements,” he told reporters.

Putin argued that while the U.S. has pushed for the resumption of inspections of Russian nuclear facilities under the treaty, NATO allies had helped Ukraine mount drone attacks on Russian air bases hosting nuclear-capable strategic bombers.

The Russian military said that it shot down the Soviet-built drones that struck two bomber bases deep inside Russia in December, but acknowledged that several servicemen were killed by debris that also damaged some aircraft.

Putin on Tuesday mocked NATO’s statement urging Russia to allow the resumption of the U.S. inspections of Russian nuclear weapons sites as “some kind of theater of the absurd.”

“The drones used for it were equipped and modernized with NATO’s expert assistance,” Putin said. “And now they want to inspect our defense facilities? In the conditions of today’s confrontation, it sounds like sheer nonsense.”

Putin described the U.S. push for access to Russian nuclear sites as “the height of hypocrisy and cynicism.”

“They want to inflict a ‘strategic defeat’ on us and at the same time, they keep trying to get to our nuclear facilities,” he charged.

He noted he signed an order a week ago to deploy new land-based strategic missiles and asked: “Are they also going to poke their noses there?”

The Russian leader also alleged that a NATO statement on New START raised the issue of the nuclear weapons of Britain and France, which are part of the alliance’s nuclear capability but aren’t included in the U.S.-Russian pact.

“They are also aimed against us. They are aimed against Russia,” Putin said of the European weapons. “Before we return to discussing the issue, we need to understand what are the aspirations of NATO members Britain and France and how we take it into account, their strategic arsenals that are part of the alliance’s combined strike potential.”

Then-presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty in 2010. The pact limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers. The agreement envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Just days before the treaty was due to expire in February 2021, Russia and the United States agreed to extend it for another five years.

Russia and the U.S. have suspended mutual inspections under New START since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Moscow last fall refused to allow their resumption, raising uncertainty about the pact’s future. Russia also indefinitely postponed a planned round of consultations under the treaty.

The U.S. State Department has said that Russia’s refusal to allow the inspections “prevents the United States from exercising important rights under the treaty and threatens the viability of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control.” It noted that nothing prevents Russian inspectors from conducting inspections of U.S. facilities.

Putin on Tuesday challenged the U.S. assertion, alleging that Washington has rejected some Russian requests for visits to specific U.S. facilities.

“We aren’t allowed to conduct full-fledged inspections under the treaty,” he said. “We can’t really check anything on their side.”

He alleged that the U.S. was working on nuclear weapons and some in the U.S. were pondering plans to resume nuclear tests banned under the global test ban that took effect after the end of the Cold War.

“In this situation, Rosatom (Russia’s state nuclear corporation) and the Defense Ministry must ensure readiness for Russian nuclear weapons tests,” Putin said. “We naturally won’t be the first to do it, but if the U.S. conducts tests we will also do it. No one should have dangerous illusions that the global strategic parity could be destroyed.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for Russia and the U.S. to immediately return to dialogue because “a world without nuclear arms control is a far more dangerous and unstable one with potentially catastrophic consequences,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press