START or Stop: Do Nuclear Weapons Treaties Matter?

One nuclear bomb can destroy a city and kill most of its people. (Photo: US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons)

After writing an initial quick reaction piece about Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to suspend his country’s participation in the New START Treaty, there has been time for some logic to set in. In other words, I have thought more about this and something doesn’t add up.

What doesn’t make sense is the inherent contradiction of, on the one hand, condemning Putin’s decision to step back from the last treaty that limits the US and Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenals, but on the other, espousing a conviction that there can never be few enough nuclear weapons unless that number is zero.

Why does it matter, then, whether the two nuclear super powers agree to cap their arsenals at “only” 3,000 or so lethal nuclear missiles and warheads each? Given the utter destruction of planet Earth that these would cause if used, an escalation (or even a decrease) seems irrelevant.

Dr. Ira Helfand of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War put this case all too clearly in a February 22 appearance on Democracy Now! when he told host, Amy Goodman: “The New START treaty, while somewhat useful, is a very limited document and a very inadequate treaty. It still allows the United States and Russia to maintain — and they do — 3,100 strategic nuclear weapons, ranging in size from 100 kilotons to 800 kilotons. That is six to 50 times more powerful than the bombs which destroyed Hiroshima.”

It’s a treaty, Helfand said, that “allows both the United States and Russia to maintain arsenals which are capable of destroying modern civilization six times over.”

So is there any point to START, “New” or otherwise? Surely we need to stop the manufacture, possession, siting (including in other people’s countries), and especially the use of nuclear weapons and get rid of them altogether? And the only instrument equipped to do that is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Before discoursing further on this thesis, there is a gauntlet to throw down — hopefully not to be disputed — that two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that the US also quietly wants to increase its nuclear arsenal and has also, like Russia, not reopened the doors to inspections under the terms of New START since the Covid-imposed restrictions lifted, does not justify Putin’s stance. According to Medact’s Frank Boulton, “the US wanted to re-start [inspections] late last year but the Russians were not willing,” which adds another layer of non-cooperation from the Russian side.

The treaty, such as it is, is there. It is all they have. Suspending participation is the wrong move at the worst time. Talking is always better than silence.

Nor is it justified to give Putin a pass because, after all, the US has broken or withdrawn from almost every treaty it ever signed (including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and the Open Skies Treaty in 2020) and has also invaded sovereign countries (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc) or interfered clandestinely to topple democratically elected governments, (Iran, Chile etc). (To learn more about this shockingly long list, read Stephen Kinzer’s brilliant book, Overthrow.)

The kidnapping by Russia of at least 6,000 Ukrainian children now reportedly held within Russia or Crimea, according to a study by Yale University and the Conflict Observatory program, is frankly enough all by itself — never mind other atrocities — to cry “O villainy!” And yes, if you are now picturing children in cages on the US southern border, many of whom vanished and have still not been reunited with their grief-stricken parents, you should be. (If you are picturing Act 5, Scene 2 of “Hamlet”, also well done.)

There is villainy all around. START is just the start of it.

“The US does not want to remain limited by New START numbers because they want more warheads to ‘counter’ China,” wrote Timmon Wallis in an email. Wallis leads the group, Nuclear Ban-US, a member of ICAN. “Putin has once again fallen into the trap of getting the blame for the demise of this treaty when the US is the one who wants to breach the numbers,” he said.

This supports Matt Korda’s “own goal” scenario that I quoted in the earlier article, that “Russia benefits from New START just as much as the United States,” and suspending participation therefore damages Russia’s own sense of security, (false though that may be, given nuclear weapons keep no one safe).

So is New START just window-dressing? Arguably “yes,” wrote Jack Cohen-Joppa, a self-avowed nuclear abolitionist who, with his wife Felice, runs The Nuclear Resister. “All NEW Start ever did was put the veneer of some sort of downward progress on an inevitable reduction in warheads due to redundancy and technological obsolescence,” he said. He compared it to a “going out of business” sale, with the business never actually closing.

The timing of Putin’s announcement, rather than the decision itself, is perhaps the greater concern. The nuclear football should never be used as a political football. If indeed Russia’s suspension of participation is a signal that, if the US and NATO continue to arm Ukraine, Putin could, and would both ramp up and maybe even use Russia’s nuclear weapons, that’s as abhorrent as the two countries’ insistence on possessing them in the first place.

As ICAN says matter-of-factly on its webpage entitled What happens if nuclear weapons are used?: “A single nuclear weapon can destroy a city and kill most of its people.”

A single weapon.

This first appeared in Beyond Nuclear International.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.