May 2023

Time for a fresh START?

Since the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in July 1991, Amit Agnihotri charts the history of this critical agreement and argues for it to be given fresh impetus

The Cold War rivalry between the US and Russia has returned in a new guise and signals the new geopolitical landscape which is emerging.

Since the expiry of the bilateral agreement between the two countries in 2009, two recent policy initiatives announced by the Kremlin demonstrate Russia’s deepening distrust of the US as well as Moscow’s growing closeness to Beijing.

The first policy move relates to the brakes that Russia has recently applied to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was signed in 2010 to enable both countries to share information about nuclear warheads with one another.

The second outlines Moscow’s larger objective of countering the US’s global influence by forging new strategic partnerships with China and India – two Asian powers which are each vying for regional dominance.

The Kremlin’s first policy move is clearly a setback for the US-led global effort to curb the development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. Indeed, for a world on the brink of an ecological catastrophe, any obstacle to the reduction of nuclear arms is certainly bad news.

The implications of the second policy are that the US’s authority in global affairs will face increasing challenges from the emerging Russia-China axis.

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signing START in 2010
THE ADULTS ARE IN THE ROOM: Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signing START in 2010

New START was signed by ex-US President, Barack Obama, and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in 2010 — a year after the two leaders had agreed to press the reset button in relations between the two rival superpowers.

According to the Treaty, the two countries were to limit their deployed nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers, share data about their nuclear assets biannually and allow on-site inspections to verify compliance.

The pact was working well until 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, sending alarm bells ringing in the US and across NATO countries in Europe.

Due to Kyiv’s stiff resistance, which has received full backing from the US and NATO forces, the Ukraine war has lasted far longer than Putin’s initial calculations, leading to a situation in which Cold War rivalries have returned to haunt an isolated Russian President, who, in turn, retaliates by threatening the West with the nuclear option.

Two recent policy initiatives announced by the Kremlin demonstrate Russia’s deepening distrust of the US

Miffed, Putin suspended New START, stating that the US inspections of Russia’s nuclear installations were unacceptable, given that Washington and NATO members were openly working to ensure Moscow’s defeat in the Ukraine War.

The US responded in equal measure, with the US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby saying that as Russia had refused to share data biannually about nuclear weapons, Washington would do the same.

During New START’s suspension, concerns grew in Washington over the 1998 pact that required the US and Russia to notify each other about any ballistic missile tests – something they had been doing since the Cold War era.

Such notifications contributed to strategic stability over successive decades and allowed both Russia and the US to correctly interpret each other’s moves and make sure neither country mistook a test launch for a missile attack.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Provoked by NATO, the Soviets set up a counter block of Eastern European communist nations

Concerns in Washington centred over Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s statements to state media that Moscow had halted all information exchanges with Washington after suspending its participation in New START.

‘All notifications, all kinds of notifications, all activities within the framework of the treaty will be suspended and will not be conducted regardless of what position the US may take,’ Ryabkov said.

However, Russia’s foreign ministry later clarified that Moscow will keep issuing such notifications as per the 1998 agreement.

Reflecting geopolitical realities, Russian diplomacy is now evolving from one which was open to working with the US to one which now focuses upon who is a friend or foe to the Kremlin.

No wonder the new foreign policy concept note describes the US as ‘the main instigator, organiser and executor of the aggressive anti-Russian policy of the collective West’ and states that Washington is ‘the source of the main risks to Russia’s security, international peace and a balanced, just and sustainable development of mankind’.

Accordingly, ‘the Russian Federation intends to give priority to the elimination of vestiges of the dominance of the United States and other unfriendly countries in world politics’, the concept note reads.

The use of the phrase ’unfriendly countries’ is a reference to nations in Europe and North America which condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and imposed economic sanctions to punish Putin for his misadventure.

FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told state media that Moscow had halted all information exchanges with Washington after suspending its participation in New START

The new document also identifies who are Russia’s new friends. China, which had no significant role during the Cold War era, is now the subject of most of the Kremlin’s focus.

Understandably, Beijing has welcomed Moscow’s new foreign policy concept. ‘The relationship between Moscow and Beijing was dedicated to growing a new type of major-country relations featuring mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, win-win cooperation and does not target and was not affected by any third party,’ a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said days after President Xi Jinping paid a visit to Putin.

In the same breath, China, which has been locked in a bloody border conflict with India since April 2020, noted that both Moscow and New Delhi were emerging powers with notable influence and that Beijing was ready to boost ties with India to send a positive signal to a world undergoing complex changes. 

During the Cold War, the US and former Soviet Union did not fight directly but engaged in a game of one-upmanship which was often played out through proxies.

As part of this power struggle, the Soviet Union helped prop up a host of communist regimes along its borders in Eastern Europe, while in 1949, a year after the infamous blockade of Berlin by Moscow, the US-led NATO was set up to secure Western Europe.

In 1955, provoked by NATO, the Soviets set up a counter block of Eastern European communist nations known as the Warsaw Pact.

While the two superpowers have engaged in a dangerous race to stockpile nuclear weapons and have increasingly threatened global peace since the 1960s, they have also signed a host of arms control pacts along the way.

The Cold War ended in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and New START was signed nearly 20 years later. Now is the time to revive the treaty and its obligations.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues