A Brief History of Russia-U.S. Nuclear Arms Control and Russia’s Suspension of the New START

The new START treaty officially called the Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, was signed by Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev and American President Barack Obama in April 2010 in Prague. This nuclear arms reduction agreement entered into force, after being ratified, a year later. In fact, this agreement is the only remaining treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation on the subject of nuclear arsenal regulation. Yet, on February 21, 2022, President Vladimir Putin announced its suspension in an annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. According to Putin, this suspension is not a complete withdrawal. To resume its participation, Russia will have to account for NATO’s combined strike arsenal among other issues. What is the history and the implications of this move?

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signing the new START treaty, Prague, Czech Republic, April 2010. Source: Kremlin.RU, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

World War II

To understand the present, we must return to the past and the history of nuclear arms usage and control. The U.S. ran the secret Manhattan Project during World War II to develop nuclear weapons. President Harry Truman, who replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt upon his death in April 1945, was tasked with completing the war effort in the European and Asia-Pacific theaters. He learned about the first successful—and successfully destructive—atomic test in New Mexico at the last wartime Allied conference in Potsdam in July 1945. One of the key issues discussed at Potsdam was Japan’s unconditional surrender. Truman decided to inform Joseph Stalin about this new powerful weapon, but the Soviet leader seemed uninterested. Behind the scenes, however, Stalin was already aware of the American project through Soviet intelligence. Indeed, the Soviet nuclear-research counterpart began in 1942, and now Stalin, too, wanted to expedite his project. 

Mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, by George R. Caron.

On July 31, Truman approved the usage of nuclear weapons against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the Americans struck Hiroshima on August 6, the Japanese faced a “living hell,” as the first Japanese public survey prior to the American occupation revealed.1 In contrast, to the Americans,  “the news came as a joyous reprieve,” argues Truman biographer David McCullough.2

Historian John Dower writes: 

«There was a widespread sense of having experienced a forbidding, surreal new dimension of existence which no other people could hope to comprehend. Such consciousness of nuclear destruction became an integral even if not always evident part of all subsequent attempts to come to terms with the war’s meaning. It reinforced a pervasive sense of powerlessness and lent an eerie kind of specialness to what might otherwise have felt like a pointless defeat.»

Dower, John, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, pp. 492-493.

Some casualty estimates for Hiroshima are up to 200,000 people. Of the total dead only 10,000 were soldiers. Wounds, radiation burns, shock for months…years. Japanese American Fumiye Miho, a U.S. citizen, was not a victim of the Hiroshima atomic strike by pure luck: she missed her train. At first, she saw a “flash of light unlike any light she had ever seen” followed by “a towering tulip-shaped cloud,” which she qualified as “the most exquisitely beautiful thing she had ever seen”.3 When Fumiye was finally able to make it into Hiroshima from the suburbs, the 35-year-old “could smell the overwhelming stench of burned flesh and see black smoke rising from the ashes”.4 The city was a wasteland. Fumiye helped pull people from the rubble, aided the injured, and poured water “into the mouths of people with no faces.” 5 The Nagasaki bombing came on August 9 with similarly devastating effects. A week later, Japanese Emperor Hirohito offered his country’s formal surrender—signed on September 2, 1945. 

The boy standing by the crematory with his dead baby brother, Nagasaki, September 1945, by Joe O’Donnell.

First, it is important to put Hiroshima and Nagasaki into perspective as part of a World War II pattern that used indiscriminate bombings of residential areas. The two cities were not the only industrial-scale Allied bombings of World War II. Historians like John Dower note that life was cheap at that time in general. Specific to Japan, the American firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 is considered the single deadliest air attack of that conflict that took away the lives of an estimated 100,000 civilians and left many more homeless. When the American occupation forces arrived in Japan, they were shocked by what they saw. Up to 40 percent of Japan’s urban regions were destroyed through U.S. aerial bombardment. Of course, beyond their sheer destructive power, the long-term radiation effects are one of the most piercing aspects of the U.S. use of nuclear weapons that make these weapons uniquely evil.

Second, the official American reason for using nuclear strikes in Japan was to save American lives in what would have been a costly land invasion. Yet it was clear for months that Japan had lost the war without offering official surrender for cultural reasons. More significant, however, was the Soviet entry into the war against Japan promised at previous Allied conferences and reiterated at Potsdam. The Soviet Union, with a massive Red Army now free from the European theater after the May 1945 victory, declared war against Japan on August 8—the day before Nagasaki—and proceeded to Manchuria. This war would have been won without the need to use nuclear strikes. Some historians have, therefore, suggest that Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done, in part, to demonstrate the U.S. technological advancement, in general, and new, deadly weapons, in particular, to the budding Cold War rival, the Soviet Union. After all, despite the strategic Allied cooperation, Yalta and Potsdam Conferences were marked by many disagreements about the postwar order in Eastern Europe between the Anglo-Americans and the Soviet Union.


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Cold War

The Soviet Union was not far behind the United States in its research. In August 1949, the country conducted its first successful nuclear test, which the U.S. perceived to be “a whole box of trouble” ending the American monopoly on this type of arms.6 The Americans proposed developing an even more powerful weapon, a hydrogen bomb (the Superbomb or the Hell Bomb). Key American policy papers like NSC-68 urged for a massive military buildup—backed by increased “defense” spending—to challenge the Soviet Union as part of its containment policy. Such decisions translated into a Cold War arms race. Yet, at the same time, the two superpower rivals, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, recognized the need to regulate their respective weapons arsenals. This recognition was underpinned by MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). MAD was a prominent doctrine of the Cold War which suggested that a full-scale nuclear exchange would lead to the destruction of both sides.

Indeed, one of the closest calls was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. In response to the American placement of Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey not far from the Soviet border, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev retaliated in kind by beginning to install medium-range ballistic missiles in a friendly, post-revolutionary Cuba. Following an intense two weeks of brinkmanship between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev, the U.S. secretly removed the missiles from Turkey and Italy in exchange for the Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. This event was one of the key factors that led to greater cooperation in the realm of nuclear arms control between the two Cold War opponents.

Nuclear Arms Control Treaties

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, SALT 1 and SALT 2 were a series of meetings between the two superpowers. Two notable agreements came in 1972 and 1979, respectively, with the negotiations starting in 1969. The talks occurred during the general framework of détente, especially pushed by statesman Henry Kissinger, between the Soviet Union and the U.S. SALT was aimed at limiting ICBMs. ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, were an important part of the two superpowers’ nuclear arsenals and a key aspect of the Cold War starting in the 1960s. SALT 1, for example, included the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty agreed upon by the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and the U.S. President Richard Nixon used to prohibit ballistic missile defenses. For example, the ABM Treaty limited each of the two sides to using only two anti-ballistic missile deployment areas such as the capital city.

Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev signing SALT 2, Vienna, Austria, 1979.

In 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attended the Reykjavík Summit on nuclear arms control but failed to reach a far-reaching agreement. Instead, 1987 produced the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was its more limited counterpart. Here, the two superpowers agreed to completely abolish their stocks of shorter-range and medium-range land-based missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, Reykjavik, Iceland, October 1986.

The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, was signed in 1991 entering into force three years later. The U.S. and Russia agreed to reduce strategic offensive arms. This complex agreement set limits to the number of deployed nuclear warheads, ICBMs, and bombers. After its expiration in 2009, came the new START, with additional strategic nuclear arms reductions. According to the new START, neither Russia nor the U.S. may deploy more than 700 long-range bombers and missiles and 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads. It is these two countries that continue holding the vast majority of nuclear weapons since the Cold War. And it is this agreement the Russian participation in which Putin suspended. 

It is important to note that the new START had a number of ratification reservations. The U.S. Congress noted that the treaty is not to restrict the U.S. deployment of a missile defense system, including one in Europe. In turn, Russia noted its right to withdraw from the agreement should the U.S. missile defense threaten its existence. The agreement was supposed to last until February 2021 with the possibility of extension for no more than five years. Indeed, in January 2021, the two sides did just that. As of September 2022, Russia has “540 deployed nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, 1,549 nuclear warheads, and 759 deployed and non-deployed launchers.” The United States is in possession of “659 delivery vehicles, 1,420 warheads, and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers.” Some experts consider this situation to be one of approximate parity when it comes to the strategic nuclear power of the two sides.

The New START Suspension

The conflict in Ukraine has been raging since April 2014, after that country underwent a violent West-backed regime change, as Kiev then attempted to militarily suppress a revolt against its own citizens in Donbass. The conflict became broader with Russia’s entry in February 2022, as the Western establishment continued to use Kiev as a proxy against Russia. This move also came after nearly three decades of NATO’s hostile expansion toward Russia’s borders, which was, for a long time, criticized by the architect of the Cold War, George Kennan, statesman Henry Kissinger, and many other Western opinion-makers.7

In Putin’s view, the most recent escalation of this conflict involves the Western establishment’s support for Kiev to strike Russian strategic aviation. Furthermore, the U.S. is rejecting the Russian bids as part of the new START, while the U.S.-dominated NATO openly claims that it seeks to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. The Russian leader stated:

«NATO has actually made an application to become a party to the new START treaty. Be my guest. This stage is long overdue. It is not only the United States that has nuclear arsenals directly aimed at Russia.»

Thus, in his view, a return to the new START would mean accounting for NATO’s combined nuclear arsenals. The geopolitical context of signing the new START treaty is also relevant. At that time, Putin stressed, the two countries did not perceive each other as rivals to the current extent. Recently, the United States has been putting forth ultimatums, the Russian President believes.

Expert opinions vary. Some claim that the suspension is a major escalation in response to the actions of the Western establishment. Others, like Ilya Kramnik of Russia’s Center for North American Studies, consider it a political move. The expert argues that Russia is far from reaching the limit of deployed nuclear weapons delivery vehicles (540 out of 700). Furthermore, the country is currently replacing the Cold War-era Voyevoda (known as “Satan” in the West), while the parameters of deployment of the new Sarmat (known as “Satan II” in the West) is unclear, in Kramnik’s view. As a result, the number of Russia’s deployed nuclear weapons delivery vehicles will not vary significantly in the next few years. However, hypothetically, a mass production and deployment of Sarmat is possible and could surpass the new START’s restrictions. He also underscores the fact that this is a suspension rather than a complete withdrawal from the treaty. Thus, the move is a “political gesture within the framework of […] the Russian-American confrontation, the significance of which is the mutual recognition of each other’s right to having national interests and spheres of influence.” If Kramnik is correct, then Putin’s suspension is another testament to his apparent thinking that the Western establishment, in its present form, only understands the language of force. However, the new START withdrawal is just one piece of the puzzle in a complex and dynamic global conflict.


1. Dower, John, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, p. 492.

 2. McCullough, David, Truman, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, 2003, p. 534. 

3. Brown, Daniel James, Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II, New York: Viking, 2021, pp. 453-4.

4. Ibid, p. 455.

5. Ibid.

6. McCullough, p. 867.

7. Until January 2023, Henry Kissinger argued that NATO expansion should have stopped at Poland.

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