Return to the era of nuclear uncertainty | International

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Dmitri Medvedev is today the deputy head of the Security Council of the Russian Federation (CSFR), an advisory body. And he does it under the one he commands, both there and in the nation's government, Vladimir Putin. In April 2010, when the United States and Russia signed the new Strategic Arms Reduction Agreement (known by its English name, New START) in Prague, a bilateral treaty that limits their nuclear offensive capacity, the one that commanded in Moscow, al less on paper, it was Medvedev, head of state. He was the one who signed in the Czech capital, along with his then American counterpart, Barack Obama, the agreement, declared suspended since last Tuesday by Putin. He accompanied that act with the following words: "This signing will open a new page for cooperation between our two countries and will create safer conditions for life here and around the world." Not anymore.

Medvedev is today one of the best examples to understand the change of course in the security scheme drawn up since the Cold War between Moscow and Washington. He has been one of the most obstinate defenders of the suspension of what he signed 13 years ago. Last Wednesday, he expressed it like this: "If the US wants to defeat Russia [por el apoyo militar de Washington a Ucrania], then we are on the brink of a world conflict. We have the right to defend ourselves with any weapon, including nuclear."

EL PAÍS has consulted four experts in arms control and security policies about the consequences of the suspension of New START announced by Putin on Tuesday. They agree that the two countries were complying with the limits on warheads, missiles and delivery systems; that, from now on, the control of these weapons is complicated, so a new arms race is possible; that Moscow's decision is part of a dissuasive attempt to curb Western support for Ukraine, and, finally, that without New START the door is open to uncertainty, instability and possible miscalculations on the nuclear front. All these scenarios that defined the Cold War.

If the treaty is not in force, [EE UU y Rusia] They can do whatever they want. They can build whatever strategic offensive weapons they want and can afford," Olga Oliker, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian security policies for International Crisis Group, said in an email exchange. “They will not be able to be as sure of what the other is or is not doing. They will still have intelligence to try to assess the other country's actions and arsenals, but they will not have inspections or data sharing or consultation to make sure they are doing the right things. In principle, they could deceive each other more easily”, continues Olike, for whom the greatest risk of this break lies in the “erroneous perceptions” that may exist due to lack of information.

What Medvedev and Obama signed in that Prague spring of 2010 limited, roughly, the number of nuclear weapons ready for immediate use. The US and Russia, which accumulate 90% of the nuclear arsenal, can count on a maximum of 1,550 warheads deployed, as well as 700 long-range missile launch systems, distributed as Moscow and Washington would like, between land launchers, submarines and the bombers ―according to data from the US State Department, as of September 2022, the two countries were below these figures―. It was a drastic reduction in relation to the treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. But there is more: a mutual control system was activated that allowed up to 18 inspections a year, periodic exchange of information and a monitoring commission. All the latter is already a piece of paper.

Non-compliance with inspections

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Todd Sechser is a professor at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The treaty is important not only because it limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads,” says this analyst, “but because it provides a path for the two countries to build trust. This move undermines that trust.” Sechser, co-author of the essay Nuclear weapons and coercive diplomacy, qualifies, however, that the impact of the announcement made by Putin is, at this moment, "more symbolic than substantial", because there have been no inspections since March 2020, initially as a result of the covid and then due to reluctance from Moscow. As a result, the US Department of State reported [en enero] that it can no longer confirm Russia's compliance with the treaty."

Obama and Medvedev at the New START signing in Prague in April 2010.Jason Reed (REUTERS)

Moscow has stated in recent days that they have no intention of exceeding the limits agreed in the agreement - although without inspections or data exchange, there is no possible verification. Yes, it has made it clear that the “circumstances” have changed in a “radical” way, a perception that is not trivial. As Konstantin Kosachev, vice-president of the Federation Council, the Russian upper house, said on Wednesday after ratifying the interruption of New START, Moscow's decision is endorsed by the 1969 Vienna Convention on Treaties, which opens the door to a possible suspension in the event of a fundamental change in the circumstances in which it was signed.

In other words, from Moscow it is considered that Washington's support for Ukraine to defeat Russia on the front makes them enemies again, for which reason the Kremlin would be forced to increase its defensive capabilities. Also in the nuclear section. The director of the Russian publication National defenseIgor Korotchenko, interviewed by the Tass agency, goes a little further by stating that Putin's decision clears the way to increase the Russian arsenal to the levels of the US plus France and the United Kingdom, the latter two not included nuclear powers in the New START, but today also allies of Kiev.

New START is the latest major nuclear arms control effort between the US and Russia. The road has been long. What was staged by Medvedev and Obama in the Prague castle required the approval of their respective Congresses. The treaty also gave seven years for the two countries to reach the limit of deployed weapons. It was reached in February 2018. But the agreement, generally successful and vital to maintaining stability in the nuclear trench, also has its qualms: if Washington has been accusing Moscow of impeding inspections for some time, the Kremlin has put into question doubt the conversion into non-nuclear systems of the B-52H bomber or the Trident II submarine shuttle.

arms race

In February 2021, the Biden and Putin governments gave the green light for a five-year extension of New START. The treaty, now suspended by Moscow, expires in 2026. But there are already many analysts who warn that there is no time left to negotiate something new after that date - it took a decade to agree on the current agreement. “If the treaty is annulled or if it expires in 2026 without replacement,” warns Shannon Bugos, an analyst at the Arms Control Association, “Washington and Moscow will lose unparalleled insight into each other's nuclear arsenals, usher in instability, and ultimately the worst case, to the takeoff of the arms race”. A race, however, that requires extra investment, something that does not seem within the reach of the two powers in the short term, according to analysts, although with time and uncertainty, the pressure of the powerful lobby of the arms industry can become heavier.

Monica Montgomery of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation agrees with Bugos's analysis: “Increased communication between the world's two largest nuclear arsenals under the treaty reduces the risk of miscalculations, arms races and conflicts. nuclear”. But that has been fading until the thrust that Putin dealt him on Tuesday. “New START will expire in February 2026,” Montgomery continues, “and the US and Russia have not yet met to work on a framework for a future treaty, due to the war in Ukraine. While the US has shown a willingness to insulate arms control from war and other geopolitical considerations, Russia has chosen not to follow suit.

Indeed, the Kremlin has put on the table, since the beginning of the war, its arsenal of strategic weapons (long-range nuclear weapons) as a coercive measure against the Ukrainian resistance and the support of the West for the Government of Volodimir Zelensky. Although the results of this bygone deterrence attempt, in the opinion of analyst Todd Sechser, are very limited: “It is striking how little Putin's nuclear threats have achieved. The Ukrainians have not backed down and the West is increasing, not decreasing, its support for the Ukrainian war effort." This Saturday, the NATO Undersecretary General, the Romanian Micea Geoana, pointed out that "the Kremlin is basically trying to intimidate Western public opinion."

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