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Ukraine War: A Thorn in the Arms Control Talks

Mr Niranjan Chandrashekhar Oak is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 18, 2024

    On 18 March 2024, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) convened a meeting on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation. Speaking at the meeting, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States (US) Representative to the UN expressed her country’s willingness to engage with Russia and China on the issue of bilateral arms control discussion without any preconditions.1

    However, Moscow reiterated its position that it will debate arms control with the US as part of a broader debate rather than divorced from the overall security situation in the region.2 In January 2024, during a press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of using the Kyiv regime to create direct security threats to Russia.3 Nevertheless, he kept an opening for resumption of the talks in the future by saying that “we do not reject this idea altogether…”4

    Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, asserted that if the US wanted to have strategic stability dialogue, “it must be done as a package”, taking care of all the aspects that impinge on Russian security.5 He implied that the arms control talks should discuss Western support for Ukraine.

    From the statements of the Russian side, it is clear that the Ukraine war has a role to play in the stalled arms control efforts. It has become one of the stumbling blocks in strategic stability dialogue, especially in light of the expiration of the last remaining arms control treaty—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), in 2026.

    Decoding Arms Control Talks Breakdown

    The Ukraine war has cast a shadow over the arms control talks in more than one way. First, Russia's direct involvement in the Ukraine war, as opposed to the indirect support of the US from afar by way of military assistance, is impeding the arms control efforts. The Ukraine war is being played out on the territory of Ukraine and Russia. During the Cold War, it was observed that superpowers hammered out arms control deals when they sensed that a nuclear attack was imminent on their territories. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the superpowers threatened each other’s territories with a nuclear strike from close proximity, prodded the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to negotiate arms control measures.

    Today, the situation is different as the US is physically insulated from the consequences of war as opposed to Russia. Thus, there is an asymmetry in terms of stakes involved in the arms control talks. While the US would like to continue with the arms control talks independent of the overall geopolitical situation on the ground, Moscow has sought to link the negotiations with the Ukraine war as it wants to keep all options open to have the upper hand and meet war objectives at the end of the war. Lavrov clearly stated that since Washington waged a hybrid war against Moscow, Russia does not see any reason “for engaging in strategic stability talks with the United States in general.”6

    Second, the collateral fallout of the Ukraine war in the form of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO has made Russia more insecure. President Putin, in his speeches on 21 and 24 February 2022 addressed to Russian citizens, clearly emphasised the threat perception coming out of the eastward expansion of NATO. Putin assessed that the expansion of NATO into Ukraine was just a matter of time, and the country would serve as a “bridgehead”7 in the eventuality of an attack by NATO on Russia. He calculated that with the advanced strategic and non-strategic weapons on Russia’s borders, it would be a “knife to throat” situation for the country.8

    Although the aim of the so-called “special military operation” was to “demilitarise and denazify Ukraine”, Putin’s speeches clearly suggest that the real objective was to deter NATO from being present at the borders of Russia. However, things turned out exactly the opposite, and the neutral Nordic countries on the north-western border of Russia also became parties to NATO. Thus, Russia’s three core demands—prevention of NATO expansion, no assault weapons on the Russian borders and rolling back NATO’s military capacity and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 19979 —have gone for a toss.

    Putin thinks that the “US administration’s professed interest in discussing strategic stability is merely demagoguery”.10 Flagging reckless expansion of NATO and waging a hybrid war against Moscow by the US, Lavrov accused Washington of wanting to resume inspection and visit Russian nuclear facilities in the garb of strategic stability talks.11   Thus, it seems Russia feels it is futile to engage Washington in the arms control talks. With the Ukraine war turning into a virtual fight between NATO and Russia, Moscow is trying to convey its disapproval of the current ground reality through non-participation in the arms control talks.

    Third, the Ukraine war has led to the crumbling of the European as well as global arms control architecture. The expansion of NATO and Russian reaction to the same has sabotaged any chance of revival of the cornerstone of the European arms control architecture—the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. In the middle of the Ukraine war, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that “while the deal initially helped to stabilise the security framework in Europe, the US-led military bloc later started to overtly bypass the restrictions, including by admitting new members.”12

    As a result, the CFE was dismantled on 7 December 2023, with the formal withdrawal of Russia from the same.13 The US, along with the NATO allies, have also suspended the operation of the CFE treaty.14 The Treaty signed in 1990, aimed to limit the number of conventional arms and equipment. It was revised in 1999 as the ‘Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe’ to suit the geopolitical conditions of the time post-Cold War.

    However, it was never ratified by the US and its allies. In turn, Russia decided to suspend its participation in the Treaty in 2007 and ceased to participate actively in 2015. Although the Treaty was ineffectual for all practical purposes, countries had not formally exited the same until the Ukraine war began. By formally withdrawing from the Treaty, the countries signalled their intentions vis-à-vis the arms control architecture.

    However, this is just a continuation of the global trend in the arena of arms control. Putin cast aspersions on the US’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballestic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019 in his address in February 2022, raising suspicion about the Pentagon’s intentions to attack mainland Russia.15 According to him, the US intends “to discuss strategic security issues with us while simultaneously trying to inflict strategic defeat on Russia on the battlefield.”16 Thus, the current environment of mistrust is impacting arms control efforts negatively.

    Fourth, the protracted Ukraine war has dented Russia’s image as a great power due to its failure to win the war decisively. During the Cold War, the US and the West relied on nuclear weapons to offset their conventional inferiority vis-à-vis the USSR. After the end of the Cold War, the Russian economy stagnated, resulting in the stagnation of its technological base and impacting its ability to strengthen conventional munitions. Therefore, it looks like Russia wants to compensate for its conventional weakness by relying on nuclear weapons.

    Russia is still a significant military power, especially in terms of the number of nuclear weapons it possesses. Putin wants the world to remember that an enduring international order is impossible in the absence of a strong and sovereign Russia.17 The Kremlin’s nuclear position may give it a semblance of power parity with the US. By engaging in the arms control dialogue, Russia does not want to lose its leverage.


    It is clear that the Ukraine war has emerged as a major hindrance to the conduct of the arms control talks. It has exacerbated already broken relations between the US and Russia. The statements from Moscow suggest that Russia is feeling insecure about its place in the emerging world order. The country is also feeling threatened due to the geographic expansion of NATO. The demise of European security architecture and the dismantling of the CFE have added to the environment of mistrust.

    Therefore, Russia is treating arms control talks as a strategic leverage against the West, which it is unlikely to give up. Moscow’s direct involvement in the war and diminished status in the emerging world, the collapse of European security architecture and Russian insecurities vis-à-vis NATO’s eastward expansion have made strategic stability dialogue even more difficult. Thus, arms control talks have become hostage to the Ukraine war, even if it is not the only factor that is stalling the dialogue.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.