State Dep’t. Can’t Certify That Russia Is Keeping Nuclear Warheads Below Agreed-To Limits

Patrick Goodenough | February 1, 2023 | 4:31am EST
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The Russian military displays Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile systems at a Victory Day parade in Moscow. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images)
The Russian military displays Yars RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile systems at a Victory Day parade in Moscow. (Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images)

( – The U.S. government cannot certify that Russia is complying with its New START Treaty obligations, the State Department said on Tuesday, prompting concern on Capitol Hill about the status and future of the last remaining arms-control agreement between the world’s leading nuclear-armed states.

In a report to Congress, the department pointed to Moscow’s refusal to allow the U.S. to carry out on-site inspections of nuclear facilities to verify that it is keeping the number of strategic weapons it possesses below the limits set by the 2010 accord.

Russia announced a temporary halt to reciprocal inspections last August, claiming that Western sanctions imposed over the Ukraine war, including visa restrictions and airspace bans, were effectively making it impossible for Russia to carry out inspections on U.S. soil, thereby giving the Americans an unfair advantage.

The State Department report noted that Russia last year also failed to meet a requirement relating to a meeting of the treaty’s bilateral consultative commission (BCC). A meeting in Cairo had been scheduled for late November, but four days out, Russia withdrew, citing “technical reasons.”

(The report observed that Russian officials had later “explained that the postponement was intended to send a political signal about Russian objections to U.S. military support for Ukraine,” among other things.)

Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was extended in early 2021 for a further five years, the U.S. and Russia each agreed to restrict the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550, the number of deployed missiles and bombers to 700, and the number of nuclear weapons launchers to 800.

Spot-checks carried out at nuclear facilities ten times a year are designed to provide assurance that each country’s declarations of warhead numbers are accurate. The inspections that the U.S. wanted to begin carrying out last summer would have been the first since both parties agreed in March 2020 to suspend the inspection regime due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 1,550 figure, which applies to deployed silo-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers which count as one warhead each, is of particularly relevance in the State Department report.

The department said that Russia reported last fall that it has 1,549 such warheads – just one below the limit. (The equivalent declared number of U.S. warheads for 2022 was 1,420.)

The report noted that the 1,549 figure was closer to the limit of permitted warheads than in any previous Russian declaration since the treaty limits first took effect.

That “close proximity to the warhead limit,” coupled with the U.S. inability to spot-check the accuracy of the Russian declarations, meant that the U.S. could not certify that Russia remains in compliance.

At the same time, the department did say it was its assessment that Russia had not engaged in “significant activity” above the treaty limits last year, and that its stock of deployed warheads at the end of 2022 was “likely” below the treaty-set limit.

‘The most dangerous period since the Cold War’

The State Department assessment comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at their frostiest in decades, primarily over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since launching the offensive last February, President Vladimir Putin has a number of times threatened openly or implicitly to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

Four Republican lawmakers dealing with strategic weapons policy expressed deep concern about the report’s findings, condemned Russia’s actions, and urged the administration to hold it accountable.

“Russia’s violations cannot go unchallenged,” Reps. Mike Rogers (Ala.) and Doug Lamborn (Colo.), and Sens. Roger Wicker (Miss.) and Deb Fischer (Neb.), said n a joint statement.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new START Treaty in Prague in April 2010. (Photo by Yuri Kadobnov / AFP via Getty Images)
President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new START Treaty in Prague in April 2010. (Photo by Yuri Kadobnov / AFP via Getty Images)

“Allowing Moscow to pick and choose when and how it complies with treaty rules – especially while the United States adheres to these same rules without fail – is intolerable and unsustainable,” they said. “Russia must be held accountable for its actions if the New START Treaty, or any future agreement, is to have any meaning at all.”

The four also expressed concern about what they called “our own diminishing nuclear deterrent.”

“We are entering the most dangerous period since the Cold War, and we cannot afford anything but the most effective triad available,” they said, urging President Biden to work with lawmakers “to accelerate our efforts to modernize our nation’s nuclear forces and equip our military to meet the challenges posed by an ever more dangerous world.”

Rogers and Wicker are respectively chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. Lamborn chairs the House committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, and Fischer is ranking member of the corresponding Senate subcommittee.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) in response to the report pointed to a broad range of non-proliferation challenges facing the West.

“Russia’s behavior, combined with China’s massive nuclear modernization, Iran’s continued expansion of its nuclear program, and North Korea’s provocative ICBM tests represent real threats to U.S. national security,” he said.

“It is vital the Biden administration pursues forward-leaning diplomacy to address these growing threats,” McCaul said. “Failure to enforce existing treaty obligations endangers our security and that of our allies.”

A trio of senior Democratic senators warned about the potential impact on future arms control initiatives.

“Russia’s unwillingness to allow on-site inspections of its nuclear facilities undermines a core tenet of the treaty – the ability to verify that its nuclear forces are below the agreed-to limitations,” said Sens. Jack Reed (R.I.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), and Mark Warner (Va.).

The chairmen of the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence Committees said that while they supported the treaty’s creation and its extension, “to be very clear, compliance with New START treaty obligations will be critical to Senate consideration of any future strategic arms control treaty with Moscow.”

New START expires in early 2026.

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