By John Erath
Since the Russian government announced that it was postponing the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), most of the commentary has rightly focused on the implications for the treaty’s future and that of arms control in general. Although it is understandable to be concerned about New START, looking at the issue solely as an arms control question misses the point.
Over the last year, virtually every decision and policy coming from Moscow has been about Ukraine, initially aimed at changing the Ukrainian government, but since September 2022, increasingly intended to facilitate a specific set of outcomes. In the near term, Russia seeks for others to come to Moscow asking for a negotiated end to the current round of fighting, one that will lock in at least some of Russia’s territorial gains, allowing it to claim military success.
Russian efforts have proceeded along two lines. First, Moscow has sought to raise the perceived cost of continuing the war to demonstrate to Ukraine that a military victory would come at too high a price. Russia has deployed thousands of poorly-trained reservists, ill-suited to conquest but able to defend occupied territory. Russian military operations have also increasingly targeted civilian infrastructure, especially the energy sector, with the objective of weaponizing winter against the Ukrainian population.
The second line of effort is against Ukraine’s outside supporters. Russian prejudice portrays Ukraine as an illegitimate state, incapable of resisting on its own and therefore propped up by foreign aid. Under this construction, successfully concluding the conflict requires persuading foreigners to pursue a peace favorable to Russia. Efforts to do so have included outreach to perceived opinion leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Elon Musk to lead “peace” efforts and attempts to use fear of nuclear escalation to lead the West to calculate that the risk of supporting Ukraine outweighs any possible benefit. The postponement of the New START BCC is but another step in this dance.
Russian leaders are aware of the importance of New START in the West as the only remaining legally binding instrument limiting nuclear weapons and believe that the Biden administration will want to preserve it. Therefore, an implicit threat to New START’s future provides diplomatic leverage to Russia that has otherwise been lacking. Seen in this context, the postponement should be viewed as another signal of Russian desperation with a conflict that has gone badly indeed.
Should we take the threat to the future of New START seriously? Absolutely. The world does not need another nuclear arms race. But Russia is part of the world and, with its military deflated and economy in shambles, it has less to gain and more to lose by the demise of arms control.