Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Feb. 22, two days before the one-year anniversary of his country’s invasion of Ukraine, that he is suspending Russia’s involvement in the New START nuclear arms agreement with the United States.
To help explain what this means, William & Mary News sat down with Jeff Kaplow, assistant professor of government at W&M and the director of NukeLab at the Global Research Institute. Kaplow is the author of the newly-published book, “Signing Away the Bomb: The Surprising Success of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime.”
Kaplow’s research and teaching focus is on international and civil conflict, nuclear weapons and international security institutions with methodological interests in quantitative analysis and predictive analytics.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is the New START nuclear treaty, and what is Putin doing by suspending Moscow’s participation?
A: The New START treaty is a bilateral arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia that puts limits on the number of nuclear weapons deployed by these states. It also includes monitoring, verification and transparency mechanisms. Russia suspending participation is really unfortunate, but the bottom line in the short term is that it doesn’t make much of a practical difference. The verification aspects of the treaty were already not being followed and hadn’t been implemented since COVID, so there weren’t inspections going on anyway.
However, Russia’s suspension of the treaty clearly sends a signal. This was one of the few areas of remaining cooperation between the United States and Russia, and so Russia’s action is a political statement saying that relations are bad enough that Russia is not willing to participate, even though it’s clearly in both countries’ interests to keep abiding by the agreement. I don’t expect Russia is going to increase its nuclear weapons beyond the limits set by the treaty, even though they’re suspending participation, and the U.S. isn’t going to do that either. It’s very likely this doesn’t change anything for the time being, but it does make the prospects of a continuation of this arms control process pretty poor. It’s hard to see a pathway where these countries come together to have new limits on nuclear weapons or new arms control agreements, unless the war with Ukraine is resolved and relations really change significantly.
Q: Is Russia abandoning all elements of the treaty?
A: Russia has said it’s not going to do that. It has said that it’s going to continue to comply with the treaty’s limits while it suspends its participation, and it’s hard to see the U.S. making the first move to not comply with its limits either. Because the verification mechanisms in the treaty won’t be functioning, Russia could do things that make us nervous, but I think it’s a long way from there to an increased risk of a nuclear conflict between these countries. There are a lot of things that have to happen in the meantime for that to become something I’m really worried about. The real significance for now is this is a very strong political statement about how bad relations are between the U.S. and Russia. They were clearly already very bad, and they are worse today than they were when this treaty was still in play. What gives me a little hope, though, is that some of the mechanisms in New START also exist in other agreements between the U.S. and Russia, like notifications of missile launches. That provision still exists and is going to be abided by, and that’s really good.
Q: The United States has committed to providing more equipment to help Ukraine. What impact has this had on the war and U.S.-Russia relations?
A: The U.S. and NATO have been providing military equipment to Ukraine throughout the conflict, and that has played a very important role in Ukraine being as successful as it has been. There’s been a kind of dance between the U.S. and Russia. How much can we support Ukraine without causing Russia to escalate further? And so far, we have successfully deterred Russia from taking any action against NATO states for providing this equipment. And I think the U.S. policy here has been to do as much as we possibly can without doing anything that is explicitly going to escalate things. We have avoided sending Ukraine offensive weapons that could reach into Russia, for example. We’ve tried to put limits on that, but as the war has gone on, we’ve been giving Ukraine more and more. We’re doing that under the assessment that it’s not going to cause Russia to escalate, and that seems right to me. I think we can provide equipment, but providing other forms of support, like sending troops or air support, would be a step too far.
But Ukraine is asking for help in terms of military support, and it’s something we can do and we should do. People talk about Putin deterring us with nuclear weapons. There have been these kinds of off-hand nuclear threats by Russia, especially at the beginning of the conflict. Late last year there was talk of maybe Russia readying nuclear weapons and things like that. But really, there’s deterrence going on on both sides. Both sides are saying to the other, if you go past this line, then we might escalate the conflict. The U.S. has said that the use of nuclear weapons or the involvement of nuclear weapons in this conflict would cross the line for us, and we’re also behaving as if we can’t give Ukraine certain kinds of weapons or get involved in certain ways for fear of escalating on Russia’s side. But for now, we’re able to support Ukraine quite a bit by providing military equipment, and that seems to be working.
Q: In your book, you wrote about the Treaty of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Is that similar to the New START treaty?
A: The treaties are both about reducing the risk from nuclear weapons, but they are focused on different kinds of risk. The NPT is trying to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t already have them, whereas the New START treaty is designed to control existing weapons in the U.S. and Russia. The NPT is kind of the cornerstone of a wider set of agreements and treaties and organizations that make up the nuclear nonproliferation regime, which is broader than just the NPT.
Q: Tell me about your findings and how they could help policymakers.
A: The findings in the book emphasize the importance of holding the line on nuclear proliferation. Not just because we don’t want other countries to get nuclear weapons, but because it sends a signal that the regime is weak, and that will cause other countries to seek weapons.
For example, there has been some talk recently about South Korea potentially developing nuclear weapons to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea. And there’s been some suggestion that the U.S. should be OK with this because South Korea is an ally. But the findings in the book suggest that if a country seeks nuclear weapons and is a member of the NPT — as South Korea is — other countries are going to see the treaty as weak, and that will lead other countries to seek weapons, too. So it is really important that we hold the line on proliferation.
Q: How did students in NukeLab at the Global Research Institute help in the writing of the book?
A: NukeLab students helped develop the cases that are used in the book, and a lot of NukeLab research went into the final product. That’s a part of this that’s really satisfying — seeing the results of all this hard work by student researchers who have been really engaged in this topic. One of the best parts of my job is getting to work with amazing William & Mary students.
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist