A protester holds a banner showing picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in downtown Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. Credit: Lee Jin-man / AP

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The Ukraine war came home to Americans when Vladimir Putin quit the last nuclear arms control agreement with the U.S. But the potentially renewed threat of nuclear confrontation, part of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, has been mostly ignored.  

To understand the new situation, I interviewed   John Holum, former U.S. under-secretary of state responsible for arms control in the Clinton administration, for an expert analysis. Here are key points from that interview.

Weil: How important is Putin’s move to suspend the   New START nuclear treaty?

Holum: There’s no way to know. It could be purely Ukraine related, a way to add leverage. The practical significance of this step in isolation is not great, because there haven’t been inspections since 2020 due to COVID and subsequently we were prepared to renew the inspections and he balked because of Ukraine. If it’s a change in nuclear doctrine, that would be a huge deal. We have to treat it that way until we know for sure.

Weil: Should we be more concerned?

Holum: Yes, almost all the [arms control] treaties we were dealing with are gone. The Bush administration withdrew from the   Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Donald Trump pulled out of the   Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement and   Open Skies Treaty. In invading Ukraine, Putin violated an   agreement under which Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement by Russia to respect their territorial integrity. Previous strategic arms control agreements have expired. Now Russia is saying we’re going to abandon the last remaining one with the U.S. All that’s left are multi-country agreements. What has been carefully constructed going back to the Eisenhower administration (1953-61) will be gone.

Weil: What does that say about Russia?

Holum: It’s a pretty foolish step on Putin’s part. The   Russian economy is one-tenth of the American economy to say nothing of Europe. Many think the Soviet Union collapsed because it couldn’t keep up in the arms race. Does he really want to do that again? And it would further cement Russia’s status as an outlaw state, equivalent to North Korea. It may be something Putin is doing; I don’t think it’s the consensus view of Russian leadership.

Weil: Does this bring back something like the Cold War?

Holum: Yes, it does. Remember that the technology both for monitoring compliance and for destruction have advanced dramatically since those early days. We have the potential of   hypersonic weapons that would eliminate early warning times. We can monitor launching vehicles like planes and missiles, but inspections remain necessary to monitor the number of nuclear warheads.

Weil: Are we now living more dangerously?

Holum: I think we are. If this is a major change by Russia, then I think we’re in a world of trouble. We need to hope that saner heads will prevail in Russia. I want to go back to the possibility that this may be a minor step, but we are still in trouble for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

Weil: Though while we must treat this move as a change in the nuclear danger, we don’t automatically get support around the world from countries who question the U.S.

Holum: We may think we can reverse doubts about the U.S., but we have a world that can see that Trump pulled out of an   Iran nuclear deal and other agreements. Once that’s happened people can think it can happen again. After Trump, our word is less valued.

Weil: What should the U.S. do in the current situation?

Holum: Intelligence may give us a better fix on what has just happened. Regardless of what’s said, we have to respond to what’s actually being done. When   Putin threatens the use of tactical nuclear weapons, you have to take that seriously. You have to be planning now how to deal with it. If Russian doctrine is changing, we have to begin by rebuilding faith in   nuclear nonproliferation with all nuclear weapon states agreeing to negotiate in good faith to reduce and then eliminate their arsenals. Preventing a weapons build-up is in Russia’s interest. By walking away from an agreement, Russia is rejecting that bargain, so the global community should join in the response.

We should, however, be wary of getting back into a reflexive arms race. Instead of a tit-for-tat reaction, we should always determine whether our forces are sufficient to maintain an unquestioned deterrent.

After my interview with Holum, the Russian president seemed to be having second thoughts about his rash move. But Holum’s worries deserve priority attention and U.S. readiness to deal with an irresponsible outburst from the world’s second nuclear power.

American leaders need to take the situation seriously and not see Putin’s move as only an empty threat. The world just became a more dangerous place.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.