24 February 2023
So President Putin suspends New START, leaving in tatters the last remaining arms control agreement with the United States. Note, ‘last remaining’. It’s scary because we enter the unknown. Without New START and given the level of tension and distrust, we are likely to see a renewed arms race. We may well have already been in one, on a number of fronts, but now it feels like both sides are saying, ‘Game on!’.
Equally, we must acknowledge shared responsibly. The United States has played a leading role in demolishing our arms control architecture, starting with major missed opportunities in the 1990s, followed by withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, INF Treaty in 2019 and Open Skies Treaty in 2020. This is in part because the United States and other states have been complacent in managing the global nuclear order, and many American leaders believed they no longer needed to be constrained by arms control.
We must also understand that actions have unintended but predictable consequences. It may well be crucial to face down a bully, and sometimes we need to accept unfavourable consequences in order to do so. If you let the bully prevail, you’re storing up trouble in the future. We can conclude that you have to unite and hit the bully hard.
But while compelling, this is only one narrative in a complex situation. Other frames also impact the situation. Consider all the myriad consequences. The costs can be enormous. We may be reluctant to admit it, but there sometimes comes a point at which we must accept that we have insufficient power to right a wrong or confront an injustice, without inflicting grave injustice ourselves. Even when we are nowhere near that point, we must be ready to bear the costs.
Russia’s suspension of New START, reprehensible as it is, is also one of those predictable consequences, arising from the way the US and its allies have chosen to face down Russia. It is simply the latest in a series of escalatory steps being taken by both sides that leads to isolation, mistrust, misunderstanding, further escalation and weakened capacity to responsibly manage crises.
Our attention has sometimes been directed at the risk of nuclear war. My team last week published an opinion poll showing that levels of awareness of the global climatic consequences of nuclear war are very low, and that when made aware a significant number of people were moved to oppose nuclear retaliation. President Putin has used warnings of nuclear exchange to limit NATO’s support for Ukraine, but it is in no-one’s interests to take the dangerous path up the nuclear escalation ladder. Stability at higher levels is extremely uncertain, and even if it holds, faith in nuclear deterrence would be badly shaken.
Unfortunately, some complacency has crept in. Western leaderships now appear to have faith that Putin was never serious and that we can call his bluff. Equally, they seem willing to sacrifice critical global governance tools in their attempts to censure, isolate and punish Russia. This is irresponsible behaviour. There are plenty of UN and media arenas in which to condemn the Russians; plenty of tools such as sanctions, to apply pressure. But it is truly shocking to see the manner in which international arenas unrelated to the war have been used by diplomats to repeatedly condemn Russia and to risk or abandon engagements essential to managing global threats such as climate change or nuclear war.
It is now critical that states relearn the lessons from the Cold War and find effective means to protect arms control, the climate change COP process, and other mechanisms to contain global catastrophic risks. Collaboration on these matters does not imply endorsement of unacceptable actions by states in other arenas, but is rather a matter of survival for all of us.
Paul Ingram is a Senior Research Associate at Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and formerly an Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC, 2007-19).