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Putin's Nuclear Scare Tactics Come With Real Consequences

Russia has announced its withdrawal from a post-Cold War nuclear arms control treaty it signed with the U.S. The decision risks re-launching a global arms race.

Photo of a ​Russian soldier standing next to army vehicles carrying missiles in the Russian semi-exclave of Kaliningrad

Russian missiles in the Russian semi-exclave of Kaliningrad

Pierre Haski


PARIS — It began as just another violent diatribe against the West, guilty of both wanted to destroy Russia and of moral decadence. But then Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled a major announcement: suspending Russia's participation in the "New Start" nuclear arms control treaty.

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Only a small crowd of experts is generally interested in these issues, but the context of the war in Ukraine obviously makes the subject alarming.

The question everyone has a right to ask is whether this announcement makes a nuclear war possible? In other words, did the world become incrementally more dangerous on Tuesday?

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the Russian president has been regularly raising the nuclear threat. His propagandists on Moscow television explain how long it takes to send an atomic bomb to Paris or Berlin. But it must be said clearly: nothing has changed in the nuclear posture of the Russian army in the last year, and yesterday's announcement does not change that — at least in the short term.

New Start treaty

The New Start treaty was signed in 2010 by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, during his interlude as president. It was due to expire in February 2021, but Joe Biden's first act upon entering the White House in January 2021 was to extend the treaty for another five years.

Putin is using the nuclear issue to frighten us.

This shows how important it is for him, and above all, it illustrates the deterioration of Russian-American relations in the past two years.

This treaty was the last remnant of the major disarmament or arms control agreements of the post-Cold War era. It aims at limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 and the number of strategic nuclear launchers to 700. This may sound like a lot, but it is considerably less than the Cold War arsenals.

Photo of \u200bRussian President Vladimir Putin giving his state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 21

Russian President Vladimir Putin giving his state of the nation address in Moscow on Feb. 21


International arms race risks

Most importantly, the New Start treaty allowed 18 inspections per year, allowing international inspectors to verify, for example, the number of nuclear warheads on an intercontinental missile.

Last month, a U.S. report accused Russia for the first time of not allowing such inspections, thereby violating the terms of the treaty. Tuesday's announcement is the logical consequence of this breach.

The connection with the war in Ukraine is indirect: It is primarily psychological. Putin is using the nuclear issue to frighten us. He knows very well that, in the public opinion, the withdrawal from a treaty could be interpreted as a prelude to a nuclear war.

The impact is more global.

There is even less direct impact on the conflict since tactical nuclear weapons — mini-bombs for local use were not covered by the New Start treaty. However, it is this use that has been regularly discussed.

The Americans told the Russians that any use of nuclear weapons, even tactical ones, would lead to the destruction of all Russian military traces on Ukrainian soil, including the Black Sea fleet stationed in Crimea.

The impact is more global, on the risk of re-launching an arms race, which will not be limited to Russia. China, which is not covered by the treaties, is modernizing its arsenal, South Korea is publicly debating the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons in the face of the North, and Iran is getting closer every day.

In this respect, Putin's announcement is bonafide bad news for the whole world.

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