The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has strained relations between the United States and Russia to their lowest point since the Cold War. With this dangerous downturn in ties has come a new challenge to the already tenuous nuclear cooperation between the two nations with the world’s largest weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is the last remaining bilateral agreement restricting the nuclear arsenals of Washington and Moscow. Mutual mistrust and the introduction of new, more modern weapon systems have for years raised questions about the deal’s fate and the Russian Foreign Ministry’s announcement last week that on-site inspections in line with the treaty’s verification regime would be temporarily suspended marked an ominous blow to the future of the pact.
Inspections had already been on pause since the spring of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that began to sweep the globe at the time. Recently, however, President Joe Biden’s administration pushed for renewing this practice, a request that the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. described as “perplexing” because of ongoing disputes—most consequentially, the U.S. decision to ban direct flights from Russia as part of sweeping sanctions put in place in response to the Kremlin’s decision to pursue military action against neighboring Ukraine in February.
“The remaining problems stem from the anti-Russian restrictive measures imposed unilaterally by the United States,” the embassy told Newsweek in a statement.
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The Biden administration has disputed this narrative. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that “U.S. sanctions and restrictive measures imposed as a result of Russia’s war against Ukraine are consistent with the New START Treaty and do not prevent Russian inspectors from conducting New START Treaty inspections in the United States.”
“The United States has and will continue to engage Russia on the resumption of inspections through diplomatic channels,” the spokesperson said.
The Russian Embassy, however, called this position “misleading” due to the feud over flights, not just to the U.S. but also to nations allied with Washington that have followed suit.
“Washington’s allies have closed their airspace to transit flights and technical stops of Russian aircraft transporting our inspectors to the U.S.,” the embassy said. “Members of our inspection teams and flight crews are prevented to obtain transit visas. The American side has none of these issues. As a result, Washington has got an obvious advantage. Without resolving these issues, it is impossible to resume inspections.”
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The embassy said that Moscow, therefore, had “no choice but to announce a temporary exemption of the inspection activities from the Russian facilities subject to inspections.”
New START, signed in 2010, is the latest version of the original START signed by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1991, just months before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The deal has limited both countries’ deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers to 700; their warheads on deployed ICBMs, on deployed SLBMs and nuclear warheads counted for deployed heavy bombers to 1,550 and their deployed and non-deployed launchers of ICBMs, of SLBMs and heavy bombers to 800.
Critical to this arrangement has been the allowance of mutual inspections to ensure compliance, especially at a time when both countries have set out to update and advance their arsenals.
While the State Department spokesperson told Newsweek that details related to when the latest on-site inspection took place was “confidential under the treaty,” the spokesperson affirmed that U.S. officials “continue to assess that Russia is in compliance with the New START Treaty’s central limits.”
“Both sides have continued to provide data declarations and notifications in accordance with the Treaty,” the spokesperson added.
The Russian Embassy, for its part, signaled that Moscow had no intention of walking away from the treaty, which it called “a gold standard in arms control,” one that “plays a key role in maintaining strategic stability and preventing an arms race.” The embassy said the suspension of inspections “in no way contradicts New START terms and is not permanent in nature.”