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Putin’s suspension of key US-Russia nuclear arms treaty increases global risk, say experts

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — After Russian President Vladimir Putin said Feb. 21 that Russia will suspend its participation in a key nuclear arms treaty, Catholic scholars and other experts called the move concerning for the world.

In a speech to the Russian parliament shortly before the first anniversary of his government’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin said that Russia would not withdraw but would suspend its participation in the New START treaty with the United States, an agreement limiting the two nations’ strategic nuclear arsenals. Putin accused the West, without evidence, of attempts to strike its strategic air bases.

“I am forced to announce today that Russia is suspending its participation in the strategic offensive arms treaty,” Putin said.

The treaty is a key component of nuclear arms control between the U.S. and Russia — together, both countries hold nearly 90% of the world’s 13,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy not only each other, but the planet. The 2010 New Start treaty succeeded the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and extends to Feb. 4, 2026. It limits both the U.S. and Russia each to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of law and a research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV News that the suspension is different in substance than a withdrawal.

“If Russia withdrew, the treaty would be terminated, and a new treaty would need to be negotiated,” she said. “A new treaty would also need to be submitted to the U.S. Senate for approval by a two-thirds vote. This is not necessary in the case of suspension. The treaty can be reactivated as soon as Russia ends the suspension.

However, she cautioned, “the U.S. has the right to terminate the treaty on the basis that the suspension is a material breach.”

Separately from the New START agreement, O’Connell said, is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which she called an important component of preventing nuclear war.

“All the declared nuclear weapons states are party to the NPT,” she said. “It alone pledges the parties to eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The five declared states have taken no serious steps toward elimination of these weapons of mass destruction.”

The five nations that are officially recognized as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.

She added that in “the midst of fears that Russia might use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, the time to take seriously the treaty obligation to eliminate nuclear weapons, as we have with chemical and biological weapons, is long past due.”

Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and creator of the nuclear weapons effects simulator NUKEMAP website, told OSV News that “either the Russians are trying to hold open the possibility for a return at some point, or they are trying to avoid the diplomatic fallout that comes from withdrawing from a treaty,” perhaps forcing the U.S. into withdrawing from it.

“This feels like diplomatic maneuvering more than any kind of strategic change,” Wellerstein said.

Wellerstein said the treaty “has had a dampening or slowing effect on the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia,” and suspended, “it is possible, in the longer term, that either or both nations could go back into an arms race mode.”

“There are certainly forces in the U.S. and Russia who would be in favor of that,” he said. “It would be a tremendous waste of resources and could potentially raise the chances of nuclear war.”

He added that “the fact that the Russians are willing to sacrifice an important treaty because of their frustrations with the war in Ukraine is a troubling sign.”

“Putin seems to be operating here out of pique, not strategy,” Wellerstein said.

Gerard Powers, director of Catholic peacebuilding studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and coordinator of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, told OSV News that “during the Cold War, arms control was often possible when there were thaws in U.S.-Soviet relations.”

“But arms control agreements sometimes serve to maintain constructive dialogue and cooperation even amidst a crisis,” Powers said. “The suspension of New START removes that critical function at this time when U.S.-Russian relations are frozen.”

Analysts said Putin’s suspension would make verifying Russia’s compliance with the New START treaty more difficult.

Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher in the WMD Program at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research, called Putin’s move “political” on Twitter, saying in a series of tweets the move was “really-really unfortunate,” and could be reversed “if the political considerations in Moscow change.”

“However, it is not clear how the situation could change for this to happen,” he added.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a canon lawyer and former U.S. Navy officer who is president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, told OSV News that “Pope Francis has been pretty explicit that there is a serious ethical issue with the threat to use weapons of mass destruction,” calling even their possession immoral.

“That’s because you cannot threaten to do what is immoral to do,” Msgr. Swetland said. “Weapons of mass destruction almost by definition are weapons that do not meet the just war criteria … when used, they will be disproportionate and they will not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.”

“So the entire apparatus of nuclear deterrence theory has serious ethical problems from a Catholic perspective,” he said.

O’Connell noted that Catholic teaching “is against the use of a nuclear weapon as well as possession of such weapons.”

“Their use results in immense suffering to those not killed immediately and devastates the natural environment,” she said. “Using game theory, political scientists have invented the idea of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ arguing that a state will be deterred from using nuclear weapons by the understanding that any use will be met by assured destruction.”

O’Connell called the argument flawed, as “Pope Francis has pointed out.”

“It is only an idea without empirical proof to support it,” she said. “But even with proof, it is completely immoral to kill masses of people as revenge. The ‘Just War’ teaching of the church is that armed force is permissible only in self-defense. That is not what nuclear weapons can accomplish.”

Kate Scanlon is a national reporter for OSV News covering Washington. Follow her on Twitter @kgscanlon.

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