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U.S. should be concerned about Russia ending arms treaty participation, expert says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a few more insights now from Sarah Bidgood, who is with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which means a moment like this is her business. Welcome to the program.

SARAH BIDGOOD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Can you educate me on how bad things could quickly get if things were to go south? We heard from Geoff that each side has 1,500 nuclear weapons deployed and ready to go or close to being deployed and ready to go. How many others do they have back on the shelf somewhere?

BIDGOOD: Oh, it's a great question, Steve. I mean, I think things are really not looking great right now from my perspective. As you heard at the top, this is really the last arms control treaty in place between the United States and Russia. And arms control plays a crucial role in preventing the kinds of arms racing that you heard Geoff talk about in his intro. So this is, you know, something that we should definitely be worried about. And it's something to which both sides should be closely attentive.

INSKEEP: But do - what I want to know is, does each side still have, as was the case during the Cold War, thousands of additional weapons lying around somewhere that they could bring out of storage?

BIDGOOD: Yes, that's definitely something that could happen.

INSKEEP: And when you hear an analyst say, well, Russia doesn't actually want that, it makes me think perhaps they're just taking a symbolic step of suspending their participation. But they're not going to really change anything. Are you reassured?

BIDGOOD: Not particularly because the way in which Russia has framed its suspension of participation in the New START treaty is as a political decision. They're really making it clear that this is a decision that's based on sort of the changing political environment with the United States against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

And so yes, while in principle I've heard some analysts point out that this is a potentially reversible decision - it's not withdraw, it's suspension - the conditions under which I think Russia would be inclined to rejoin participation are not ones that I think the U.S. would sort of be interested in. They're things like showing political will and a conscientious effort towards general de-escalation. To me, it sounds like Russia is essentially interested in holding the treaty hostage to change the U.S. position with respect to the war in Ukraine, which is leaving me feeling quite pessimistic.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. When you say hold the treaty hostage, I imagine Putin saying, lovely little planet you got there, be a shame if anything happened to it. Is that what's going on here?

BIDGOOD: Well, I think - I mean, I think it's more the case that Russia is making it clear that they're not necessarily willing to wall things like arms control off from the broader political environment and the broader ups and downs in the U.S.-Russian relationship, which really represents, you know, a change from the Cold War. In the Cold War, we often saw moments where the U.S. and Russia or the U.S. and Soviet relationship was quite bad. But still, arms control, nonproliferation cooperation were able to move forward. In the current environment, what I'm hearing from the Kremlin and what we hear coming from Putin is that that's no longer really the case. These two things are now linked.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the way that U.S. military officials, when they think about Russia, they like to communicate. They want predictability. They want open channels of communication. They want to know what each other is doing to avoid misunderstandings. And with that in mind, I took note when Geoff told us a moment ago that Russia is ending inspections of military bases. How big a deal is it that each side would then have less visibility into what the other side might or might not be doing?

BIDGOOD: Yeah, that's a great point, Steve. I think you've hit the nail on the head. So when on-site inspections go away, which, you know, to be honest, those were already - Russia had already prohibited those before Putin made his announcement on Tuesday that they were suspending participation. But when you don't have on-site inspections, you do lose this visibility, just as you said, into sort of what is happening on the other side with respect to the other side's strategic arsenal.

And I think it's important to note here that that does a couple of things. I mean, for one thing, it can, on the U.S. side, decrease confidence about what Russia is doing. They claim they're going to comply with the treaty limits, even though they're suspending their participation in the treaty itself. But how do we actually know that's happening if we don't have on-site inspections and we don't have data exchanges? But I think the other...

INSKEEP: I don't want to terrify everybody. Oh, no, go on, go on. Finish your point.

BIDGOOD: The other thing I was going to say is that in addition, you know, those opportunities to interact with your counterparts on the other side also provide important channels for, you know, confidence building, for regular communication that isn't necessarily happening in today's environment. So you're losing a couple of different things there when the on-site inspections go away.

INSKEEP: Does the loss of information force American decision-makers, in some potential future crisis, force them to make decisions differently because they can't be sure what the other side might be doing?

BIDGOOD: I think the answer to that would be, you know, not necessarily so much in a crisis per se. But I would say, with respect to making decisions about, you know, military buildups and things like that, arms racing, in an environment where you're not really clear on what the other side is doing, that can lead you to make decisions where you just want to hedge all of your bets because you're not really clear on what's happening with your adversary...

INSKEEP: Oh, by spending a lot of money. And that happened during the Cold War for sure.

BIDGOOD: ...For example. (Laughter) Exactly.

INSKEEP: Sarah Bidgood, thanks so much.

BIDGOOD: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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