The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that the U.S. State Department and the Obama Administration championed has been a bad deal for the U.S. Despite the fact that the U.S.’s international security obligations are vastly different from Russia’s, the treaty codified that the U.S. will have the same number of nuclear warheads as Russia. Now for the first time, according to the latest New START data exchange, Russia actually has more actively deployed nuclear warheads than the U.S.
The minor Russian advantage in strategic nuclear weapons comes despite the incredible asymmetry in both countries’ commitments to global security and despite Russia’s 10-to-one advantage in tactical nuclear weapons systems in the European theatre. The U.S. guarantees nuclear security to about 30 nations around the world. Russia is a threat to many nations but does not extend its security guarantees to anyone else.
President Barack Obama’s 2010 nuclear strategy assumes that Russia is no longer an adversary and that the potential for conflict with Moscow is low. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s increasing aggressiveness toward its neighbors and countries in Eastern Europe have proven these assumptions wrong.
The State Department data exchange shows that Russia is deploying its weapons in the most destabilizing manner possible: It is increasing the number of nuclear warheads on each of its delivery systems.
The optics of Russia having more actively deployed nuclear warheads than the U.S. gives Vladimir Putin an important propaganda victory—a victory brought about by the Obama Administration’s ineptitude and wrong assumptions about Russia’s behavior and intentions.
Additionally, Russia has violated its arms control obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It is unclear what the implications of these violations are for European security. Russia’s extensive nuclear weapons modernization program stands in pale contrast to the U.S.’s limited efforts to keep its nuclear weapons safe, secure, and reliable. The Administration’s limited modernization efforts are being hampered by sequestration, and the consensus that the U.S. had following New START ratification has broken down.
To reaffirm U.S. commitment to its allies and international security, the U.S. should withdraw from New START and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, modernize its nuclear forces and infrastructure (which have been underfunded for decades), develop and deploy a comprehensive layered missile defense system that would be capable of addressing Russia’s ballistic missile threat, and re-evaluate its strategic posture. U.S. and allied security and stability in the European theatre depend on these steps being taken.