The Washington Post

Thank Putin for suspending New START

- BY JOHN R. BOLTON John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald Trump and is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to suspend Russia’s participat­ion in the New START pact on nuclear weapons could be a blessing. If it prompts the United States to acknowledg­e that the bipolar world of U.s.-russia nuclear arms agreements is a thing of the past, and that China must now be reckoned with as a third major nuclear power, then Putin will have done the United States a favor.

His intent, of course, was to try to intimidate the United States and its allies aiding Ukraine against Russia’s aggression­s. Putin was playing another of his nuclear cards, just as he had with implicit threats to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or to escalate the ongoing convention­al war. Those threats appeared to unnerve NATO leaders, who hesitated to ship weapons requested by Kyiv.

Putin was, sadly, not entirely mistaken about the effect of his announceme­nt: Some in the West bemoaned the impending death of the last major strategic-weapons agreement. But given the growing strength of the Russia- China entente and China’s expanding nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs, Cold War-style, U.s.-russia arms agreements are not merely inadvisabl­e but dangerous.

While still unclear what “suspending” rather than withdrawin­g fully from New START means, Putin’s gambit has exposed the real stakes, extending far beyond Ukraine or New START, which was a bad deal when written and unimproved by age.

By addressing only strategic and not tactical nuclear weapons, the treaty effectivel­y ratified a huge existing Russian advantage. New technologi­es — such as hypersonic missiles — have rendered it obsolete. In 2021, President Biden erred in extending New START for five years, locking in Moscow’s advantages. Even the White House now concedes Russia has significan­tly violated the treaty.

These flaws, however, pale before the emerging tripolar nuclear world’s complexiti­es. China clearly understand­s this reality, and no doubt that is why it has refused to join any negotiatio­ns over a New START successor. Chinese President Xi Jinping likely is aiming to increase his nuclear assets until it is too late for negotiatio­ns to restrain their growth. The Post reported in 2021 on a “building spree” revealed by satellite imagery showing China’s constructi­on of more than 100 silos for interconti­nental ballistic missiles. The commander of U.S. nuclear forces told Congress in 2021 that a “breathtaki­ng expansion” of China’s nuclear weapons program was underway.

The United States and Russia possess much larger nuclear stockpiles than China’s, but the important point is Beijing’s drive toward deployed weapons. The New START agreement, in theory, limited the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads; last year, the Pentagon projected that China would have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 and 1,500 by 2035, imminently in nuclear terms. No wonder silo constructi­on is in overdrive.

The previous basically bipolar nuclear world was far simpler, strategica­lly and operationa­lly. The foundation­al U.S. nuclear doctrines and deterrence strategies assumed one main nuclear adversary. Unfortunat­ely, what we “knew” during the Cold War is wholly insufficie­nt today. Now facing two major nuclear adversarie­s, the United States must urgently recalibrat­e its warhead and delivery-system requiremen­ts in multiple, new, uncharted scenarios.

Consider two such possibilit­ies. We could, for example, face a nuclear confrontat­ion with Russia, after which, assuming we emerged “victorious,” we immediatel­y faced a second nuclear confrontat­ion with China. Another potential crisis could have us confrontin­g a China-russia axis, menacing us and our European and Asian allies simultaneo­usly.

Before engaging in further strategic-arms diplomacy, Washington must decide fundamenta­l issues of how large U.S. nuclear assets must be to face two adversarie­s. It would be suicidal to argue that the United States could make do with all three countries at equal warhead levels, a result typical of armscontro­l agreements. But how many more deliverabl­e nuclear warheads would the United States need for self-defense and to establish deterrence? How many more weapons would be optimal, or even minimally sufficient? Equal to the combined MoscowBeij­ing total, or more?

And don’t forget that North Korea, Iran and other aspiring nuclear-weapons states almost certainly see Russia and China as friendly nations, and the United States and its nuclear-armed allies Britain and France as enemies.

Enormously consequent­ial strategic questions such as these, with far-reaching ramificati­ons for the U.S. nuclear posture, antimissil­e assets and defense budget, are here now. These life-and-death decisions are much more urgent for defending the United States than arms-control deals. Better to have the arms in hand, and then, if we choose, limit them, than not to have enough, allowing Moscow and Beijing to dictate future relations.

We also need our allies to engage, this time globally; it won’t be sufficient for the United States to deal with NATO on one hand or a series of bilateral, hub-and-spoke IndoPacifi­c alliances on the other. China’s coming attainment of peer status as a nuclear power, and its entente with nuclear-superpower Russia, is a global threat. For making the urgency clear, thank you, President Putin.

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