Suspension of the New START Treaty: Are We Speeding up the Doomsday Clock?*

Francesca Bergeretti
Trainee at the Einstein Centre for International Studies in Turin


On Tuesday 21 February, the ticking of the Doomsday clock – the clock of the apocalypse, as the Doomsday scientists are used to depict it – has progressively become louder. The suspension of Russia’s involvement in the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) has been announced on the occasion of the State of Union speech held by Russian president Vladimir Putin. A decision that comes a few days before the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, and does not seem to give any indication of possible détente between the parties.

The New START Treaty, which entered in force in 2011 and was last renewed in 2021, was signed by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, and required a commitment by Russia and the US to reduce strategic nuclear warheads, and prescribed a mutual monitoring of nuclear weapons sites too. The adherence to the agreement had, however, weakened and, given the ongoing health emergency, inspections had been previously interrupted in 2019. The formal suspension of the New START represents a further symbolic sign of the rupture towards the West, since the treaty was, to this day, the last bilateral document in existence between Washington and Moscow regarding the control and the restriction of nuclear weapons.

Throughout the years, especially following the Cuban crisis in 1961, the two nuclear powers, USA and URSS, had shown themselves willing to establish a climate of cooperation through the so-called SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), since, being aware of the destructive capacity of this new equipment, their main concern was to stem the risk of a nuclear war. Nevertheless, a first symptom of the worsening of the relationship between the two forces, in the nuclear field, had been the withdrawal of the USA from the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), which had led to a vicious downward spiral involving other non-proliferation programs, for instance the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) signed with Iran.

The risk of a new arms race, as many scholars point out, seems therefore to be re-emerging and throwing the political scenario into a balance of terror. This balance brings back the Cold War’s approaches by replicating the argument of the security dilemma, which conceives an international system in which any increase in the power of one player is perceived as an act of aggression and, thus, affects the safety of other countries. By applying this discourse to recent events, a reasoning arises and leads to the question of how we can tackle a violent escalation without trusting the powers involved and their foresight, which, it is to be hoped, aims at turning away from a conflictual outcome and at restoring a constructive relationship. Currently, this path seems quite complicated, if not impractical.

As a result, it is, furthermore, necessary to highlight the implications following the suspension of Russia’s contribution to the treaty, and not its full withdrawal. Despite a few cases in which a treaty’s suspension has been restored to the pre-existing agreement, the decision taken by Moscow, albeit intimidating, is not yet definitive and several attempts have been made to delay the alarming course of events. The intervention of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) is extremely relevant. ICAN judges the Kremlin's decision as dangerous and reckless and calls for a repeal of its statement.

Nonetheless, by investigating the reasons that led Russia to suspend its nuclear engagement, there is an accusation by Moscow of the USA’s non-cooperation in the implementation of the treaty. The Russian choice would not be entirely irreversible, if there were, as Putin claims, a de-escalation and an actual willingness to resume the treaty on the part of Washington. Again, if one relies on strategic analysis studies, it is possible to interpret Putin's behaviour by referring to Game Theory and highlighting how the Russian president puts the burden of choice on the adversary, recommending the US to demonstrate a political will to cooperate, and in the meantime, refraining from denying a hypothetical deployment of nuclear weapons to defend his country's integrity.

The setback of the bilateral treaty undoubtedly has consequences not only confined to the two countries but, if we take into account the technological advances in the whole world, a relaxation of nuclear safeguards will meet the approval of other regional nuclear powers, such as Iran, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan, who aspire to bridge the gap with Moscow and Washington. Given the non-adhesion of these regional powers, with the exception of Iran, to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the nuclear threat is not to be underestimated, and considering the lack of rationality in such a conflict, the consequences could be irreversible.

Consequently, questions arise with regard to which attitudes will prevail in the society towards the threat of a nuclear war and whether we should expect a scenario marked by simplifying optimists, namely rationalists who minimize the effects of the atomic weapon, or, as Norberto Bobbio would define them, by “fatalists” and “nihilists”. In a system characterised by a climate of deterrence by punishment, which entrusts the peaceful outcome of international relations to reciprocal awareness of mutually assured destruction, concerns about the world falling back into a climate of uncertainty in the field of nuclear weapons resurface. It would appear, therefore, that the Doomsday Clock has resumed running at an accelerated pace.

* The article was published in Italian on Eurobull:


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