From, Feb. 24, 2023, Complete text:

Ahead of the [Russian] president’s Message to the Federal Assembly, proestablishment media were brimming with speculations that Vladimir Putin would once again overturn the chessboard [and] declare some fundamentally new, revolutionary measures that would lead to a complete victory in Ukraine.

However, contrary to these servile expectations, Vladimir Putin said nothing specific about the course of military operations [or] about how the goals of the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine that he set a year ago [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13] are being achieved. He only promised to “pursue our goals gradually, painstakingly and consistently,” without explaining what those goals actually are. The supreme commander in chief focused on expressing gratitude to participants in the “special military operation” and promising them numerous benefits. At the same time, his remark that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine will receive a 14-day leave every six months suggests that the Kremlin is planning to conduct long-term combat operations.

The last remaining treaty.

In the absence of clear military victories in Ukraine that could be declared from the high rostrum, Putin preferred to score a victory over the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the last remaining Russian-US strategic stability agreement. Signed in 2010 [see Vol. 62, No. 13, pp. 8‑10], the New START treaty limited the number of deployed warheads to 1,550 and [strategic intercontinental] nuclear delivery vehicles (ground-launched missiles, submarine-launched missiles and strategic bombers) to 700 for each country. It also established multilevel verification and mutual notification mechanisms. Two years ago, when then-US president Donald Trump refused to extend the treaty and demanded that China join it [see Vol. 72, No. 22, pp. 16‑17], Moscow described this agreement as nothing less than the “cornerstone of international security.” When [US President] Joe Biden extended the treaty after all within his first several days of taking office, Moscow immediately ratified it [see Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 3‑6].

Now cracks have emerged in this “cornerstone.” The Russian president stated that inspections of nuclear facilities envisioned under the treaty, which Washington is insisting on, look absurd amid the conflict around Ukraine and the West’s current intentions to “inflict a strategic defeat on Russia.” At the same time, he accused “NATO specialists” of helping equip and modernize the drones that have attacked strategic air bases in Russia: “We know that the West is behind the attempts to launch strikes on our strategic aviation bases. And what, after that, they are going to travel around our defense installations? This sounds like utter nonsense.”

Furthermore, Putin offered a rather peculiar interpretation of the North Atlantic Council’s statement that was made in early February, which called on Russia to fully comply with the New START treaty, saying he saw that as the intention to join this Russian-US treaty. It should be noted that in the past, NATO has repeatedly expressed its position on signing and observing Russian-US strategic stability treaties. However, Moscow has never before viewed such statements as a bid by the North Atlantic alliance to participate in Russian-US treaties.

But now, using this statement by NATO as an excuse, Vladimir Putin has declared the need for the nuclear capabilities of France and Great Britain to be taken into account. Stressing that “suspending” the treaty does not mean withdrawing from it, he said that now it is necessary to “understand how the alliance’s total nuclear capabilities will be taken into account in [the treaty].”

This goes back to the situation of the early 1980s at the Soviet-US talks on intermediate-range missiles. At the time, the Soviet Union’s demand to factor in French and British nuclear forces drove the talks into an impasse for years. There is no doubt that even if we ignore the atmosphere of extremely intense confrontation between Russia and the West, this demand alone will undoubtedly bury the New START treaty. Putin’s remark that Moscow is “only” suspending its participation, not withdrawing from the treaty, should fool no one. It is important to remember that having “suspended” its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in 2007 [see Vol. 59, No. 28‑29, pp. 7‑8], Russia never returned to it.

Clearly, to maximize the shock effect from the “suspension” of the New START treaty, Putin said that, according to his information, “some in Washington are pondering [plans to resume] nuclear tests. Given these hypothetical data, the president ordered the Defense Ministry and Rosatom [Federal Atomic Energy Agency] to ensure “readiness for Russian nuclear weapons tests if the US conducts such tests.”

Substitute for Sarmat [ICBMs].

The New START treaty was the last remaining Russian-US agreement in the now defunct system of strategic stability treaties. In the past 20 years, Moscow and Washington have worked hard to destroy the strategic stability and arms control system that took half a century to put in place (suffice it to recall the [1972] Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the [1990] CFE Treaty, the [1987] Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate- and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF) and many other agreements). And now there is every reason to say that Putin has hammered the last nail into the coffin of this system. To extrapolate the present situation based on the past, the world has again ended up in a situation similar to the one just before the [1962] Cuban missile crisis.

Since the early 1970s, the series of strategic offensive arms control agreements led first to the limitation and then the reduction of nuclear missiles and warheads, of which there were enough to destroy all life on the planet many times over. As a result, their amount has been reduced 10-fold. Granted, the existing arsenals are still enough for [nuclear] apocalypse. Thank God our diplomats had enough responsibility to explain several hours after Putin’s speech that despite suspending its participation, Moscow has no intention of changing the treaty’s quantitative parameters. Moreover, the [Russian] Foreign Ministry even recalled the 1988 [Ballistic] Missile Launch Notification Agreement. And now, with relations between Moscow and Washington at an unprecedentedly low level, there is hope that the other side will not mistake missile tests for a nuclear attack – with all the ensuing consequences.

Granted, Russia has denied the US the right to conduct inspections. This means that neither side will be sure that data on the status of its partner’s nuclear arsenal comply with the terms of the treaty. This also means that without reliable information, the military on each side will assess a potential adversary’s capabilities and intentions based on the worst-case scenario. In a state of intense confrontation, any accidental incident might turn into a global disaster.

It is also important to remember that in the Soviet days, arms control talks represented a convenient channel of communication between Moscow and Washington, which helped in critical situations. Having lost the entire nuclear arms control system, humankind is winding up in a situation similar to the one that existed shortly before the Cuban [missile] crisis.

Furthermore, from a practical perspective, Moscow would seriously lose out if the New START treaty ceased to exist. According to the latest exchange of data on nuclear arsenals, Moscow lags behind Washington by at least 100 delivery vehicles (540 vs. 659). If an uncontrolled nuclear arms race were to begin, the US would have a significant advantage – especially considering that the actual state of affairs with regard to the buildup of the Russian nuclear capability differs somewhat from the upbeat reports of top Russian officials.

Congratulating the Russian people on Defenders of the Fatherland Day [Feb. 23], Vladimir Putin said: “This year, the first launchers of the Sarmat [intercontinental ballistic] missile system with a new heavy missile will be put on combat alert.” The Kremlin, which considers it extremely important to maintain quantitative parity with the US on strategic nuclear weapons, badly needs this missile. Moscow needs to replace the well-known SS‑18 Satan [missiles], which account for roughly one-third of Russia’s nuclear capability, with Sarmat [missiles] as soon as possible. After all, SS‑18s have been in use several times longer than their intended service life.

Back in 2016, Russian media, citing high-ranking [military] officials, reported that the Sarmat missile was practically ready. During the past seven years, military and political leaders have repeatedly stated that successful test launches of this wonderful missile were just about to begin, after which they would be immediately put on combat alert status. And now, for the umpteenth time, Putin has promised to deploy Sarmats. Meanwhile, only one test launch has been carried out.

If the president really hopes to put these missiles on combat alert after just one test, that would be an unprecedented decision. Citing White House officials, the CNN television network reported that on the eve of Putin’s address, Moscow notified [the US] about the upcoming test launch of the Sarmat missile, and that the test failed. If that is the case, it can be assumed that the decision to suspend participation in the New START treaty was not a very good substitute for the planned high-profile statement with regard to Sarmat’s successful tests. If [Russia] failed to demonstrate the nuclear threat one way, why not demonstrate it another way? Especially if you throw in the vague threat to conduct a nuclear test – i.e., a real nuclear explosion.

Top Russian officials have long turned the threat of using nuclear weapons into a mantra, a de rigueur figure of speech. As a result, the threat has been devalued. Other potent means to impact the West were needed, such as missile tests or withdrawal from a treaty. But now even these means have been exhausted. It cannot be ruled out that as the Kremlin climbs the spiral of threats, sooner or later it will venture to conduct a showy nuclear explosion under the guise of a test.