Relations between the United States and Russia were bad enough before the latter’s brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. But, in the 15 months since, the specter of all-out nuclear war has increased significantly, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. Set at just 90 seconds to midnight in January, that is the nearest to Armageddon America has been since the clock measure of nuclear weapons danger was created by BAS in 1947. There is good reason to agree with and fear its perception of the current situation.
For one, Russia’s takeover and reckless management of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine turned the civilian plant into a war zone and renewed haunting memories of the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine in 1986. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus. In late March 2023, the Kremlin informed American authorities that Russia would no longer give advance notice prior to nuclear tests. But perhaps the most startling setback in U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons status was the February 2023 Russian move to suspend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The New START nuclear weapons treaty, otherwise known as START II, was originally approved in 2011. It placed bilateral limits on nuclear warheads, deployed missiles and deployed intercontinental ballistic missile launchers. The five-year renewal of New START in 2021 was seen as a positive move in global arms control. Its suspension is not only a loss of positive momentum but an open invitation to nations such as China, North Korea and Iran to augment nuclear weapons production.
Before New START, the long-term efforts at controlling nuclear weapons witnessed some notable successes. The 1963 nuclear test ban treaty between Russia and the United States led to a more comprehensive multilateral nuclear test ban pact 33 years later. The original Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT I, was ratified in 1972 and set limits on nuclear warheads for the first time in the nuclear age. That agreement lasted five years. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START I, passed in 1994 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, was enforced during its full 15-year run.
However, other nuclear agreements between America and Russia have been terminated, and the blame is not one-sided. For instance, SALT II was signed in 1979 and lasted six years, but it was ignored by both sides after Russia’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Senate’s refusal to ratify it. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, limiting deployment of missile systems that could destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as a number of interceptors, lasted 30 years but was severely tested by the Ronald Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative and was canceled by the George W. Bush White House in 2002. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — which prohibited possessing, producing or testing ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with medium ranges — was enacted in 1988; it was negated by the Donald Trump administration in 2018. Having signed onto the Iran nuclear framework, along with Russia and four other countries in 2015, America pulled out of that multilateral agreement in 2018. Finally, the 1992 Open Skies Treaty allowed sharing of pictures from overflights of nuclear facilities. The United States withdrew from the Open Skies agreement in 2020, followed by Russia the next year.
There are diverse ideas for dealing with nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia. The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center proposes cutting off U.S. import of Russian uranium and demanding that other nations follow suit. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton emphasizes the need for a new arms treaty that limits tactical nuclear weapons. Still others advocate modernizing America’s nuclear triad and even being prepared for a simultaneous two-front nuclear exchange with Russia and China. For those who want to seize Vladimir Putin after his designation as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court, be reminded that America never joined that global judicial body.
Whether America and Russia can recoup recent progress in managing nuclear weapons is questionable in the short term, at least as long as Putin’s Ukraine butchery continues. Meanwhile, let’s pray that the nuclear fallout drills of the 1950s and 1960s don’t make a comeback.
Dr. Samuel B. Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University, is a previous recipient of a fellowship from the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.