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Russia says it's suspending a major treaty limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country is suspending its participation in a major treaty that limits U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. Now, this suspension follows months of diplomatic tension over the treaty, and NPR's science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here to explain what this all means. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa. How are you?

CHANG: OK - I'm good. Can you just tell us a little bit more about this treaty? Like, what is it? And what does it mean to suspend it?

BRUMFIEL: Right. This treaty was called New Start. It is called New Start. It began back in 2011. And the main thing it does is limit the number of strategic nuclear weapons each side can have deployed. So under this treaty, each side can have around 1,500 weapons on bombers, submarines and missiles. That might seem like a lot, but at various points in the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia had over 30,000 nuclear weapons each.

CHANG: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: So this is a big difference.

CHANG: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: Now, Russia did say today they'll continue to abide by that 1,500 number, at least for now.

CHANG: OK - which seems like good news, but I guess there's a catch, right? Like, what's lost in suspending this treaty?

BRUMFIEL: That's right. Well, former President Ronald Reagan had that old chestnut he liked to roll out - trust but verify. And we're losing pretty much all the verification. The U.S. and Russia, believe it or not, used to travel to each other's nuclear bases and actually count warheads on top of missiles. That hasn't happened since the start of the pandemic. And after today's announcement, it's clear it won't be resuming. They also used to tell each other a lot about where missiles and bombs were and where they were headed. So say a bomber was moving from one air base to another, the U.S. might tell the Russians, hey, we're going to send this bomber over there. And it looks like those notifications are also now suspended. Now, there is one kind of notification the Russians say they'll continue to give, and that's the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those are the kinds of missiles they'd use to send a nuke to the U.S. And you can imagine it's a good idea to let America know if you're going to test one...

CHANG: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: ...So they don't get the wrong idea. That's kind of the bare minimum you would do.

CHANG: Right. Exactly. Well, obviously, U.S.-Russia relations have been less than ideal for quite some time now. But what did the Kremlin say about why Russia is doing this specifically at this moment?

BRUMFIEL: Putin in his speech said he was simply suspending participation, but a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made out - made it pretty clear that this all comes back to the war in Ukraine. I spoke to Olga Oliker with the nonprofit International Crisis Group. She says Russia knows the U.S. and its allies care about this treaty.

OLGA OLIKER: We can punish the West by taking away the thing that they care about.

BRUMFIEL: And she also says Russia has been making nuclear threats throughout the conflict, and those threats might seem more credible if the U.S. doesn't know exactly where the weapons are, if that reporting isn't happening.

CHANG: Well, I guess, Geoff, the biggest question on people's minds might be - is this the beginning of a new arms race? What do you think?

BRUMFIEL: I asked Oliker that, and here's what she said.

OLIKER: Probably not, or at least not immediately. But the door is open. So overall, this is a very bad thing.

BRUMFIEL: There's sort of a catch-22 to this treaty in that it only applied to deployed nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russia have thousands of weapons in storage. And it would be relatively straightforward to pull those weapons out, bolt them onto a missile or put them in a bomber, and things could really start to spiral out of control from there. So that's the concern.

CHANG: Indeed. That is NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.