Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday suspended his country's participation in the New Start Treaty, the last remaining bilateral nuclear weapons agreement between Russia and the US. In terms of nuclear warheads, the US is second only to Russia, yet the arsenals of both countries dwarf any other nuclear power.
Undoubtedly, Putin's decision has enormously increased the likelihood of nuclear conflagration between Russia and the West. However, according to Florian Eblenkamp, a Campaign Officer for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), it was not totally unexpected.
"It's completely reckless and unacceptable behaviour to escalate the risk of nuclear conflict like this," Eblenkamp told The Brussels Times. "But it's not completely surprising. Inspections of nuclear facilities [as mandated by the Treaty] had been suspended: first pandemic restrictions were cited, then the Russians cynically argued that this was due to its citizens no longer being able to travel [due to flight bans]."
Eblenkamp also pointed out that Russia's suspension of its participation has an added degree of cynicism, given that earlier this month Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had explicitly affirmed Moscow's intention to abide by the terms of the deal.
"We consider the continuation of the New Start Treaty very important," Peskov said. "It is actually the only one that still remains, hypothetically speaking, viable."
'Time for excuses is over'
As Eblenkamp noted, the New Start Treaty was the last of four bilateral nuclear agreements between the US and Russia that have been discarded in the past two decades. In 2002, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; it later also pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and the Open Skies Treaty in 2020.
"It's hard to blame one country specifically for the failure of these agreements. The US has suspended these other treaties; it's not just Russia's fault. However, by starting this war in Ukraine, Russia has certainly contributed to the loss of trust between it and the US. The little bit of trust that was left has virtually disappeared."
- 'Real and palpable fear': Doomsday Clock CEO on avoiding nuclear apocalypse
- US deployment of upgraded nukes to Europe condemned by anti-nuke group
Ultimately, Eblenkamp suggested that for humanity to pull back from the brink a fundamental change in attitude towards nuclear weapons among both policymakers and citizens is required, according to which nuclear weapons are no longer regarded as legitimate weapons of war.
He noted that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — a 2021 UN agreement which expressly prohibits signatories from developing, possessing, or threatening to use nuclear weapons — represents such a new approach.
"The time for excuses is over. We have to start thinking seriously about nuclear disarmament. We have to remember: these are weapons that are used to mass murder civilians."