Biggest threat from Ukraine War: Last nuclear agreement suspended

War rarely stays within the boundaries set or desired for it. That makes returning to arms control crucial for the survival of humanity

March 05, 2023 by Prabir Purkayastha
Image used for representational purposes only. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Ukraine war has completed one year. Unfortunately, one consequence of this war is that the New START or New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the last remaining arms control agreement on nuclear weapons and missiles, has gone into limbo. On February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russia has “suspended” participation in the New START II version, though it will observe limits set on nuclear missiles and warheads until the agreement expires in 2026. Russia placing New START in suspended animation is a response to the United States and its allies converting the Ukraine war into a NATO war against Russia.

Earlier, the United States walked out of the two other arms control treaties, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019. Capping the number of launchers and warheads, coupled with the ABM Treaty, meant both countries would refrain from building missile shields and reduce warheads.

The ABM Treaty was a counterpart to SALT or the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty—they were negotiated together, while START and New START are the latter’s successors. ABM was the first arms control treaty the United States jettisoned after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Why was ABM the counterpart to the SALT negotiations? The reason goes back to the nuclear missile race and the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD) at its heart. The understanding was that any side that struck first in a nuclear war would be able to take out most of the other side’s nuclear weapons. The question was could the country striking first survive the weak response of the other country, most of whose missile infrastructure would have been taken out, with its political and military leadership? This led both the United States and the Soviets to build a huge number of warheads and missile launchers so that even if 95% of their nuclear missiles were taken out, the remaining few would still be enough to destroy their opponent.

At its height, the United States and the Soviet Union had 64,000 warheads in all, which has dropped to the maximum permitted under New START, to 1,550 each, or 3,100 in total. New START also limits launchers on each side to 700. This inventory does not take into account the other nuclear powers like China, the United Kingdom, France, Israel, India and Pakistan, all of which have nuclear weapons but much smaller inventories.

The argument was that an architecture in which nuclear missiles and warheads could be reduced demanded that no anti-ballistic missiles should be deployed. Otherwise, a missile shield could take out most missiles launched after a country has been attacked first—and has, therefore, lost most of its missiles. Without the ABM Treaty, the logic of MAD would mean a spiraling nuclear weapons race, as happened earlier.

Though the George Bush administration abandoned the ABM treaty in 2002, no ABM shields were constructed except two permitted under the defunct ABM Treaty. Therefore, there was no need to increase warheads to defeat anti-ballistic missiles.

While the United States abandoned the ABM Treaty in 2002, the first potential anti-ballistic missile deployment took place in Romania and Poland in 2010. The US AEGIS Ashore systems deployed in these countries have the ability to fire either cruise missiles or anti-ballistic missiles, destabilizing a fragile arms control regime based on not creating anti-ballistic missile shields.

The second arms control treaty that fell after the ABM Treaty was the INF agreement, which banned land-based missiles with a range between 1,000 to 5,500 kilometers. This agreement was signed by former United States president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. Its objective was to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons in Europe.

Though former United States president Donald Trump talked about China while withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Russia perceived that with NATO’s frontline moving to its borders, INF missiles would also reach the Russian border. Intermediate-range Nuclear Missiles in Poland and Romania, and the possibility of such cruise missiles in Ukraine in the future, were perceived as a direct threat to Russia. With the United States leaving the ABM Treaty and installing AEGIS batteries capable of firing cruise and anti-ballistic missiles close to Russia’s borders, the entire disarmament architecture painstakingly created during the Cold War with the Soviet Union no longer exists.

I am not dealing with the origins of the Ukraine war, but only its implications for the nuclear arms control architecture and treaties. Clearly, this war is also a war between Russia and NATO. The military support of NATO to Ukraine over the last year, including direct transfers of military hardware, funds, and the cost of NATO support, is now more than $66 billion, Russia’s entire military budget for the year. And as we now know, NATO’s total stock of shells, artillery and other weapons is slowly being destroyed in the Ukraine war.

While we take for granted the NATO support for Ukraine, interestingly, The Washington Post has reported that NATO has also provided direct battlefield support. The Post wrote on 9 February: “Ukrainian officials said they require coordinates provided or confirmed by the United States and its allies for the vast majority of strikes using its advanced US-provided rocket systems, a previously undisclosed practice that reveals a deeper and more operationally active role for the Pentagon in the war.” As the article details, Ukraine’s role is only to press the button. All else is being controlled by the United States. NATO is a full partner of Ukraine’s forces in this war, helping it choose where to strike and what to hit and even providing coordinates to the missile systems.

It is in this context that we must see Ukraine’s attempted drone strike against the Engels Airbase in Russia, 600 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Engels airbase stores nuclear weapons, and if NATO indeed provides coordinates for all strikes against Russia, did it also provide logistical support to the Ukrainian drone attempting to hit a nuclear weapons store in Russia? In other words, did NATO actually control the drone or give the coordinates of the Engels airbase?

This is important to Russia’s announcement on New START. Russia has said it will observe all limits on weapons and launchers set in New START but is suspending the agreement till it expires. It means it is suspending all inspections of its nuclear facilities, also a part of the New START agreement.

Inspecting each other’s nuclear facilities is key to the agreement, preventing the two from hiding warheads and their locations. If NATO is involved with targeting Russian facilities, including nuclear ones within Russia, then inspections of its facilities increase the risk of a successful attack on it. Putin said as much in his annual address on 21 February: “We know that the West is directly linked to the attempts of Kyiv regime to attack our strategic aviation basis. The NATO specialist helped in directing unmanned aircraft to attack these facilities. And they want to inspect our facilities? Today this is just nonsense.”

Ukraine earlier attacked the Zaprozhiya Nuclear Plant held by Russia in the Zaprozhiya Oblast. Though this is extremely dangerous, as it can easily lead to a Fukushima-like disaster and spread radioactive material around a very large area, these attacks continued for some time without any response from the International Atomic Energy Agency or Ukraine’s NATO allies. The problem with war—any war—is it rarely stays within the boundaries set by either side. Attacking nuclear plants and stockpiles adds significantly to the risk of the war in Ukraine today.

Return to arms control is a must, not simply for peace in Europe, but for the survival of humanity. It is stupid or completely blinkered to think war can continue between NATO and Russia without the possibility of spinning out of control. To this, we must add the almost critical status of the disarmament architecture, with even the last agreement standing—the New START—now at risk. Stepping back from the nuclear precipice will not be easy. Even if we can start to repair the nuclear disarmament architecture, we need peace between Russia and NATO and the Ukraine war to stop.

Abandoning two nuclear disarmament agreements, and putting the last remaining one in suspended animation, is a civilizational threat. The tragedy is we do not have statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Josip Broz Tito or Sukarno, who, having led independence struggles in their countries, had gained the stature to broker peace between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the emerging multi-polar world, leaders of non-combatant countries are unwilling to stand up for peace, worried their narrow national interests may be hurt if they stick their necks out.

There is no collective like the Non-Aligned Movement that could act as an independent body to play such a role either. Instead, we have to wait for good sense to dawn on the combatant countries that a war between nuclear powers, even if thinly cloaked as only weapons and logistic support, can spin out of control at any moment. This is perhaps the most dangerous moment in our history after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The fact that it is not being perceived as such is the real tragedy.