The nuclear weapon treaties that have helped preserve peace for nearly half a century have begun to fray.
Stirring concern are recent Russian treaty violations, growing tensions between nuclear powers and the continuing ambitions of nations seeking their own strategic weapons.
The latest blow came with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last month that he would add 40 new intercontinental nuclear missiles to his arsenal — not a treaty violation, but a powerful message about Russia’s robust plans for its nuclear forces.
Over the last half-century, weapons treaties have led to a dramatic drop in the number of warheads. At the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, the U.S. had more than 30,000 nuclear weapons — 400 targeted on Moscow alone.
Although both the U.S. and Russia are still below treaty limits set in the years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the prospect is growing dim for continued reductions in weapons.
The State Department recently concluded that Russia had violated a 1987 treaty by testing an intermediate-range missile — considered one of the most destabilizing weapons during the Cold War because of its ability to strike with no early warning.
The U.S. is now considering deploying its own medium-range missiles in Europe, a serious blow to the era of arms control.
“It might be unraveling,” said Siegfried Hecker, former director of the nuclear weapons design center at Los Alamos, N.M., and now a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.
Alexei G. Arbatov, a respected arms control expert and a former Russian legislator, agrees that the future for arms control appears bleak.
“Although arms control has faced difficulties in the past, never before have virtually all negotiating tracks been simultaneously stalled, existing treaties been eroded by political and technological developments, and the planning for next steps been so in doubt,” he wrote in a recent report published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Putin’s plan for 40 new missiles exacerbates the already tense relations between Russia and the U.S. following the seizure of Crimea and assistance to Ukrainian rebels. Putin boasted that the new missiles could penetrate even the most technologically advanced U.S. missile defense systems.
Some European and even U.S. analysts say Putin is merely updating his arsenal, just as the U.S. is planning to do with its forces over the next decade.
But the new missiles reverse years of nuclear weapons reductions, though they would not immediately violate the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 2010.
That agreement requires Russia and the U.S. to reduce deployed intercontinental missiles to 700 and overall warheads to 1,550 each. Russia is below the missile ceiling, while the U.S. is above it. Both sides are close to the limits on warheads. The two nations have until 2018 to meet the limits.
Still, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry rejected any backsliding “to a kind of a Cold War status.”
“Nobody should hear that kind of announcement from a leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about what the implications are,” he said last month.