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U.S. Says Russia Has Violated Nuclear-Arms Treaty by Blocking Inspections

Russia has violated the New START treaty cutting long-range nuclear arms by refusing to allow on-site inspections and rebuffing Washington’s requests to meet to discuss its compliance concerns, the U.S. State Department said in a report sent to Congress on Tuesday. 

The State Department’s finding that Moscow is in “noncompliance” with the accord marks the first time that the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty, which entered into force in 2011. 

The lack of inspections has also made it harder to verify the number of warheads Russia has deployed under the accord, the State Department added.

The finding comes amid concerns that the sharp tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may endanger prospects of cooperating on arms control and negotiating a follow-on agreement that would take effect after the New START treaty expires in 2026.

The Biden administration is eager to preserve the New START treaty, which is the last major agreement regulating the nuclear competition between the two sides, and is pressing Russia to correct the violations.   

“There is a clear path to re-compliance here, and we continue to strongly value the treaty,” said a senior State Department official. “Both of these instances of noncompliance are easily remedied.”

Russian officials have been aware that the State Department was due to report to Congress soon on Moscow’s compliance with the New START treaty and have sought to blame the U.S. for the waning cooperation on implementing the agreement. 

Sergei Ryabkov,

a deputy Russian foreign minister, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant last week that it was difficult to address Washington’s concerns “as long as the U.S. doesn’t reconsider its extremely hostile line toward Russia.” 

Mr. Ryabkov, in an email sent Tuesday to The Wall Street Journal, did not address the inspection issue but noted that “Russia has been consistently in full and strict compliance with central limits of the treaty.”

At the beginning of the Biden administration, both sides seemed eager to safeguard the treaty. President Biden called for a five-year extension of the New START treaty during his first month in office, which was agreed to by Moscow. The agreement caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads and bombs at 1,550 and includes provisions for on-site inspections to verify the treaty’s limits. 

Inspections were suspended in March 2020 by mutual agreement after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. But tensions over Ukraine later cast a shadow over the accord. When the U.S. sought to resume inspections in August 2022, Russia balked.

Though Russia cited the complications of carrying out inspections in the midst of a pandemic, the State Department report says, Moscow’s refusal stemmed from its unhappiness with the U.S. response to Russian President

Vladimir Putin’s

invasion of Ukraine. 

Problems worsened when the U.S. sought to discuss its concerns over restoring the inspections at a session of the New START treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission, which was established to discuss implementation of the accord. 

Russia’s refusal to allow inspections has made it harder to say if the warhead numbers it has provided are accurate.



Photo:

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

The meeting was to have been held in Egypt in late November, but Russian officials pulled out at the last minute and haven’t agreed to a new date, which the State Department cites as a second instance of “noncompliance.”

Russia’s refusal to allow inspections has made it harder to say if the warhead numbers it has provided are accurate, a problem the State Department describes as a “serious concern” but not a violation. 

Russia notified the U.S. in September that it had 1,549 warheads and bombs. But without the ability to use inspections to carry out spot checks, the State Department report notes, the U.S. cannot say for sure if Russia stayed within that treaty limit last year. 

The State Department reports, however, that if Moscow strayed above the warhead ceiling, the numbers weren’t militarily significant and that Russia was likely under the 1,550 cap by the end of 2022.

The absence of inspections has some consequences for Russia’s arms control experts, too. American and Russian officials have discussed a procedure to reassure Moscow that U.S. Trident II submarines could not be quickly converted to carry more missiles, U.S. officials say. Those procedures were to be assessed by Russian officials in an inspection, which hasn’t taken place.

Russia has continued to provide notification of its test missile launches under the treaty and to exchange data on the number of deployed warheads, missiles and bombers. The State Department official said that the Russians have continued to tell the U.S. that Moscow still supports the treaty.

But Republican lawmakers warned that the Russian violations might be followed by more substantial breaches of the treaty that would enable Moscow to expand its forces, and said that the Pentagon needed to be ready to adjust the size of the U.S. forces in response. 

“There now isn’t a single treaty that Russia has not or is not violating,” said

Mike Rogers,

the Alabama Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “The Joint Staff needs to assume Russia has or will be breaching New START caps. I want to see the plans for how the U.S. will respond.”

The U.S. and Russia were already far apart on what weapons would be covered by a possible follow-on to the New START treaty before Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Arms control proponents said that Russia’s refusal to allow inspections has cast a cloud over the prospects for future cooperation on arms control. 

“This marks the first time I can recall that the routine treaty implementation process has been disturbed by broader political tensions, rather than insulated from them,” said

Lynn Rusten,

a former senior U.S. official who is now vice president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on security issues.   

“With the pandemic under control, the failure to resume treaty inspections is unjustified and unacceptable,” she added. 

Daryl Kimball,

the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, said the difficulties could present problems for negotiating a potential follow-on treaty.

“New START will expire in exactly 1,101 days,” Mr. Kimball said. “The longer Mr. Putin blocks effective engagement on nuclear arms control diplomacy with the United States, the more likely Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals will be left unconstrained for the first time since 1972.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com

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