Why did Russia renounce the START Treaty?
Why did Russia renounce the START Treaty?

On February 21, Russia suspended its participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START Treaty ), which had been extended from January 2021 until 2026. At the same time, Moscow stated that it would continue to abide by the treaty’s terms despite the suspension.

However, one of the main problems in this regard is that few know the real state of the Russian strategic nuclear arsenal since the inspections were discontinued almost three years ago, in March 2020.

There is also evidence to imply that Russia never intended to abide by the New START Treaty following its mass invasion of Ukraine a year ago. Russia, for one, has rejected the resumption of inspections in August 2022 for many dubious and petty reasons, such as allegations that such inspections give a strategic advantage to the United States.

Then, six months later, in order to justify not continuing inspections, Moscow pointed to the treaty’s preamble, the altered geopolitical environment, and the United States arms deliveries to Ukraine.

On the other hand, Russia has been working to enhance the number of its deployed nuclear carriers. In its most recent update, Russia reported having 540 ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers in its arsenal.

Prior to this, the pact had never seen more than 528 signatories at once. The overall number of launchers, both active and in storage, has stayed pretty constant at roughly 760, though.

In fact, Russia may have already decided to step down in August 2022. before coming clean with the world about its true intentions, to New START and will try to give the impression that it is capable of growing its strategic nuclear weapons.

However, Russia inevitably needs to reduce the number of strategic nuclear vectors in its arsenal. For example, Russia currently has 40 deployed R-36M2 (RS-20/SS-18) heavy liquid propellant ICBMs produced in the late 1980s, up from 46 by 2020. From 2004 to 2013, the Kremlin made regular launches of these ICBMs, which extended their service for several years. 

With the final test launch in October 2013, Russia stopped conducting ICBM test launches of this type. This meant that the missiles might be used for another five years. Since 2018, its lifespan has been extended without testing, and it was originally scheduled for complete decommissioning by 2024.

The same end-of-service schedule was scheduled for the 45 RT-2PM Topol (RS-12M/SS-25) solid-propellant ICBMs that are supposed to remain in the Russian arsenal since 2020. Some sources, however, claim that just nine fully functional Topol ICBMs are now accessible.

If this is the case, then 42 ICBMs will have been retired in the two years between 2020 and 2022 when no inspections were conducted, and the remaining 49 ICBMs will be deactivated in the two years between 2023 and 2024.

The remaining 78 Topol-M (RS-12M2/SS-27) ICBMs are slated for retirement between 2025 and 2035. Increasing longevity is only conceivable in theory at this point.

As far as SLBMs are concerned, the scenario is essentially the same. Russia operates seven nuclear-powered submarines, one Delta-III (project 667BDR Kalmar) and six Delta-IV (project 667BDRM Delfin), each carrying 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The newest Delta-III submarine has been in operation for 40 years, making it the longest-serving submarine in its class by at least three years. And despite revisions made between 2011 and 2017, the added operational life of the Delta-III and Delta-IV rarely exceeded five years.

Submarines of the Delta-IV class are expected to stay in service until the final vessel of this type is retired in 2030. However, in the early 2020s, it was planned to decommission at least two submarines. There have been no public declarations or inspections of the Soviet-era Russian submarines. Thus their current status is unknown. Nonetheless, at least three of them will likely be taken out of service in 2023 or 2024, along with their 48 SLBMs.

Therefore, it is planned that at least 97 Russian ICBMs and SLBMs will be withdrawn from operational use in the next two years. Due to the current decrepit state of the Russian defense production industry, this capability decline cannot be fully offset in the near future. For example, the average annual manufacturing rate of the Yars ICBMs between 2009 and 2022 can be estimated at 13-14 missiles (total quantity is about 180 missiles), which is barely higher than that number today. 

Borei class submarine
Borei class submarine

Russia commissioned six  with 16 Bulava SLBMs between 2013 and 2022. By the end of 2023, the seventh submarine will have entered service, and the remaining three will follow suit by the year 2030. The only somewhat reliable portion of Russia’s strategic arsenal would be its heavy bombers, but losses during the conflict against Ukraine and high consumption cast doubt on this outlook.

Bulava test launch

As a result, Russian strategic nuclear weapons will be drastically reduced during the next few years. Given the current state of domestic manufacturing, Russian nuclear arsenal stabilization measures will not be able to return to the average level sustained throughout the 2010s until 2030.

This, however, can only happen if the Russian military has no trouble keeping up with maintenance or producing vital nuclear vectors. Russia hopes that by keeping this decline in capabilities under wraps, it can maintain some semblance of strategic parity with the United States in the international arena.