photo credit: ICAN | Alex Petrenko

Nuclear risk: Russia suspends NEW Start, one year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine


As the world marks one year since Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, the risk of nuclear war is at its highest ever with overt nuclear threats being issued over the conflict and increasingly dangerous rhetoric from the nuclear-armed states and their allies. Only days before the one-year mark, Russia has announced it is suspending the implementation of the New START agreement with the US. On the plus side, we have also seen the world unite in condemning nuclear threats, and realise the urgent need to eliminate these weapons of mass destruction through the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Suspension of New START

On February 21st, just days before the one year anniversary, President Putin announced Russia is suspending its implementation of the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the US, New START, connecting this decision to the conflict in Ukraine in his speech. Suspending implementation of New START represents a dangerous and reckless decision from Mr Putin and ICAN has called on Russia to immediately return to full compliance with the agreement and continue to adhere to nuclear weapons limits. Read more here.

The role of nuclear blackmail in the Ukraine invasion

Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was accompanied by President Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons against anyone who tried to intervene and subsequently placing the country’s arsenal on high alert. Since then, repeated overt and veiled threats from Russian officials to use nuclear weapons seem to have been issued in response to increases in military support for Ukraine from the US and Europe. We have also seen blatant violations of the commitments to disarm of the nuclear-armed states who are members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The risk is further heightened by responses from other governments that don’t rule out possible retaliation with nuclear weapons.

The increased risk is reflected by the decision of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move the Doomsday Clock forward last month to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. All of these threats - thinly veiled or otherwise - compound the risk of nuclear weapons use, and demonstrate the flawed nature of nuclear deterrence which, instead of ensuring stability, has brought us a year of brutal, devastating warfare.

No one wants to believe that nuclear weapons will be used, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, they can be used. That is what nuclear deterrence is based on- credibly threatening to mass murder civilians with nuclear weapons.

How do we reduce the risk now?

The way to respond to this renewed threat of nuclear war is not to increase nuclear arsenals or threaten nuclear retaliation. The answer is for all countries to condemn any and all nuclear threats and to join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the only treaty explicitly banning nuclear threats. TPNW states parties’ unequivocal and global condemnation of nuclear threats last year, has since been echoed by leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as the G20. These condemnations have been credited with helping tamper down the dangerous escalation in rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the TPNW provides a verifiable pathway for nuclear-armed states to eliminate their arsenals. This treaty, which entered into force in 2021, has made nuclear weapons comprehensively illegal under international law, and only two years later, 92 countries have signed the treaty and 68 have ratified it. All countries need to join the TPNW without delay and reinforce the norm against using or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

With the treaty in place, it is also time for nuclear-armed states to get round the table to discuss how they will move towards eliminating their arsenals. The upcoming G7 leaders summit in Hiroshima - the first city to be attacked with a nuclear weapon - is the perfect opportunity to announce concrete moves on disarmament.