The Role of U.S. Diplomacy in Countering Russia’s Nuclear Threats and Misbehavior

The Role of U.S. Diplomacy in Countering Russia’s Nuclear Threats and Misbehavior

With the ongoing war in Ukraine and the recent suspension of the New START treaty, concerns about nuclear escalation have been on the rise.

"We must never negotiate from fear, but we must never fear to negotiate."

- John F. Kennedy

These words, spoken long ago by President John F. Kennedy, have a special resonance now, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seems bent on upending the nuclear order that has been in place for over 50 years. From the start of Putin’s adventure in Ukraine, he has threatened “ominous consequences” for those who would meddle with Russia’s invasion.1 His loyal deputies amplified these threats, calling for nuclear death to rain down on NATO capitals.2 Thus, the United States and its NATO allies were put on notice from the outset that if their support for Kyiv brought allied soldiers into contact with the Russian invaders, nuclear escalation could ensue. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War had such explicit nuclear use been promised.

Nonetheless, the primary restraint on strategic nuclear weapons, the New START treaty, remained intact in the first year of the Ukraine war. Although on-site inspections had been paused by mutual agreement in March 2020,3 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and Russia continued to exchange notifications about the status of their nuclear delivery vehicles and launchers on a frequent basis, sometimes multiple times a day. This continued routine provided significant mutual confidence that initiating a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia was not an aspect of the Kremlin’s nuclear saber-rattling.

This mutual reassurance took a significant blow when, on Feb. 21, 2023, Putin suspended implementation of the New START treaty. He and his government stated that no “business as usual” could be conducted while the United States and its NATO allies continued to support Ukraine in its fight for continued independence and sovereignty.4

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