How Worried Should We Be About Putin's Latest Nuclear Threat?

Russian president Vladimir Putin has said that he was suspending participation in the only remaining major nuclear treaty with the US.

As he accused the West of being directly involved in attempts to bomb Russia’s strategic air bases, Putin said of the New START pact: “I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty.”

So why does friction between the US and Russia over nuclear weapons matter, and how seriously should the threat inherent in his remarks be taken? HuffPost UK explains.

How big are the US and Russian nuclear arsenals?

The US and Russia are comfortably the world’s two biggest nuclear superpowers.

Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile, controlled around 5,977 warheads as of 2022, compared to 5,428 controlled by the US, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

The warheads can launched by missiles, submarines and bombers, and are in various states of readiness.

Between them, the US and Russis hold nearly 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads – enough to destroy the planet many times over.

Other nuclear powers include China, France and the UK.

Russian president Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia.
Russian president Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin gestures as he gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Russia.

What is the treaty?

The New START treaty – whose official name is The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms – was signed in Prague in 2010 by US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

It came into force the following year and was extended in 2021 for five more years just after Joe Biden took office. The treaty is due to expire in 2026.

The pact limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads that the US and Russia can deploy, and the deployment of land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers to deliver them. Each country is capped to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers.

The crucial aspect to the agreement is the sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

What is Putin’s justification?

Alleged Nato involvement in attacks on Russia 

In his speech, Putin said, without providing evidence, that the West was directly involved in Ukrainian attacks on bases for Russian strategic bomber planes deep inside Russian territory.

He said it was therefore “absurd” that Nato – the US-led military alliance with 30 member nations – demands that Russia should allow inspections of its nuclear bases under the New START treaty.

“The US and Nato openly say that their goal is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia,” Putin said. “And what – after that, they are going to drive around our defence facilities, including the newest ones, as if nothing had happened?”

Nato member countries in Europe.
Nato member countries in Europe.

Nato member countries in Europe.

The nuclear weapons of Britain and France

Putin also raised issues with Britain and France’s nuclear weapons being part of Nato’s nuclear capability – but are not included in the US-Russian pact.

He said Britain and France’s nukes are “aimed against Russia”, adding: “Before we return to discussing the treaty, we need to understand what are the aspirations of Nato members Britain and France and how we take it into account their strategic arsenals that are part of the alliance’s combined strike potential.”

Could nuclear weapons tests return?

Putin also warned that Russia could resume nuclear weapons tests if the US does so – a seismic shift in geopolitical relations given a global ban on nuclear weapons tests has been in place since the Cold War-era.

Putin said: “We naturally won’t be the first to do it, but if the US conducts tests we will also do it. No one should have dangerous illusions that the global strategic parity could be destroyed.”

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only a few countries have tested nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association: The US last in 1992, China and France last in 1996, India and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea last in 2017. The Soviet Union last tested in 1990.

So ... how worried should we be?

The fear of “World War III” has loomed large ever since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. The big concern is the war could lead to clashes with neighbouring countries such as Poland, which is a Nato member, which would up the ante dramatically by dragging the US into direct conflict with Russia under the obligations to the alliance.

Putin’s latest remarks need to be weighed against a series of questions. How serious is he really about escalating the conflict – potentially to a nuclear winter – when Russia has previously said it should be avoided at all costs?

Is a mere threat enough to achieve his aims? His comments were delivered at a one-hour-and-45-minute speech to the Russian parliament, and a reminder of Russia’s military might could be an attempt to counter flagging moral domestically after a series of battlefield defeats, and remind the international community of its strength elsewhere.

Commentators variously describe the move as an act of desperation and one that could not be taken too seriously given Russia consistently breaching nuclear treaties.

Andrey Baklitskiy, of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, wrote on Twitter that “suspension of the treaty is not equal to leaving the treaty”, so the assumption was that “there will be no Russian build-up above the treaty limits”. But he added: “There will be much fewer opportunities to verify this (only national technical means), so compliance will be disputed.”

Boris Bondarev, a former member of Russia’s delegation to the United Nations, suggested Putin was “bluffing”. Bondarev, who quit his job in protest at the “bloody, witless” war,  told Newsweek: “Today (Putin’s) bluffing and we know that he has bluffed about nuclear threats. Ukrainians recovered some parts of their territory, and there was no nuclear retaliation.

“If you’re afraid of Putin using nukes, then you already lose the war against him and he wins. Because that’s what he wants. He wants you to be compelled or be deterred by his threats.”

The US responded cautiously. US secretary of state Antony Blinken deplored Putin’s move as “deeply unfortunate and irresponsible”, but noted that “we’ll be watching carefully to see what Russia actually does” and that the US would “continue to act responsibly in this area”.