With the first anniversary of his full-scale assault on Ukraine fast approaching, Vladimir Putin delivered an angry speech to the Russian parliament yesterday.
Most eye-catching among his declarations was the decision to suspend Moscow’s participation in the New START nuclear treaty.
So what does the move mean – and does it make nuclear war any more likely?
What did Putin announce and what is New START?
The Russian president told lawmakers that his government “is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty”.
He’s referring to the New START accord between the US and Russia, which limits the number of nuclear weapons the two countries can hold.
To enforce these limits, the treaty says each side must allow the other to carry out inspections at nuclear sites. It also requires them to exchange data on the “numbers, locations and technical characteristics of weapons systems and facilities”, as the US government’s New START factsheet explains.
The agreement took effect in 2011 and was renewed in 2021 for a further five years.
President Putin was keen to stress in yesterday’s speech that the latest move is merely a suspension, not an outright withdrawal, from the treaty.
The Russian foreign ministry said later that, “the decision to suspend participation in New START can be reversed. To do this, Washington must show the political will and make good-faith efforts for general de-escalation”.
Does Putin’s announcement change much?
Joseph Cirincione, the former Director for Non-Proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the BBC yesterday that the suspension “formalises what Putin is already doing, which is not complying with the inspection protocols [required by the treaty]. In some ways, this just pulls the blinds on the house.”
He explained that the decision “will block the exchange of data between the two sides, it will block inspectors from going to each side’s weapons facilities”.
But, Mr Cirincione says he understands Putin will continue to limit the number of nuclear weapons because that part of the treaty is “basically in his own security interests: he doesn’t want the United States to have more nuclear weapons. His military would like the predictability of controlled nuclear arsenals”.
Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group’s director for Europe and Central Asia, echoed these comments, telling Time magazine that Putin’s decision to suspend rather than withdraw from New START suggests “that he plans for Russia’s arsenal to stay under treaty limits”. This, she says, is “very much in both Russia’s and the US’s interest, and in the interests of the world as a whole”.
Does suspending New START make nuclear war any more likely?
Any mention of nuclear weapons will inevitably catch the eye of Western leaders and commentators. But yesterday’s speech has not caused panic among seasoned Russia-watchers.
“I don’t think it changes much,” says Dr Kenton White, lecturer in strategic studies and international relations at the University of Reading. He told FactCheck that the speech represents “a continuation of President Putin’s rhetoric, mostly for the consumption of internal media and existing allies”.
“I don’t believe the threat of nuclear war is significant,” he added. “The possibility of the use of nuclear weapons is extremely small, and has been from the beginning. President Putin, or at least his close advisors, understand that their use would be tantamount to suicide.”
That’s also the view of experts at the Institute for the Study of War, a “non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organisation”. “Putin may have made this announcement in order to re-introduce nuclear rhetoric into the information space, thereby distracting from the overall lack of substance in the rest of his speech,” they wrote.
The analysts add that Russia has previously used “nuclear rhetoric […] to discourage Ukraine and the West and compensate for Russian battlefield failures” and that the Institute still believes “Russia will not employ a nuclear weapon in Ukraine or against NATO”.
Lieutenant General David Leakey, former director general of the European Union Military Staff, told GB News yesterday that recent speeches by Biden and Putin, and Moscow’s suspension of New START, are “all gradual diplomatic, sabre-rattling steps”.
“I don’t see any great risk or danger in that, that’s just part of the orchestra, part of the choreography of what’s going on here,” he added.