President Vladimir Putin has said Russia was prepared to drop a nuclear weapons agreement treaty with the United States and warned of “global catastrophe” if Washington keeps dismantling a global arms control regime.
Speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg, Putin said Washington showed no genuine interest in conducting talks on extending the New START treaty which caps the number of nuclear warheads well below Cold War limits.
“If no one feels like extending the agreement – New START – well, we won’t do it then,” Putin said.
“We have said a hundred times that we are ready [to extend it], but no one is holding any talks with us. The negotiations process hasn’t been arranged at all.”
The treaty was signed by US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010.
The accord, which expires in 2021, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers.
Together with another agreement known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, New START is considered a centrepiece of superpower arms control.
The US pulled out of the INF in February, accusing Russia of violating its terms. Moscow, which has denied any breaches, followed suit.
Putin said the potential implications of letting the New START treaty expire would be huge, suggesting its demise could fuel a nuclear arms race.
“If we don’t keep this ‘fiery dragon’ under control, if we let it out of the bottle – God forbid – this could lead to global catastrophe,” Putin said.
“There won’t be any instruments at all limiting an arms race, for example, the deployment of weapons in space.”
“This means that nuclear weapons will be hanging over every one of us all the time.”
Putin said he was puzzled by the absence of a global discussion.
“Will anyone think about it, speak up, show some concern?” the Russian leader said. “No – total silence.”
While criticising the US moves, Putin said that his latest phone call with US President Donald Trump in May “encouraged certain optimism”. Trump shared his concern about an arms race, Putin said, adding that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whom he hosted the same month also spoke “in a similar vein”.
Calling for “practical steps towards joint action”, the Russian president said all nuclear powers – both officially recognised as possessing nuclear weapons and not – should take part in future talks.
Pompeo and Trump have called for the New START treaty to be expanded to include China, which has already rejected the idea.
Trump’s domestic rivals in the Democratic Party have also voiced concern over the lack of negotiations.
In a letter to Trump on Wednesday, senior Democrats in Congress urged him to extend New START through to the end of 2026.
“We believe that a decision to forego the benefits of New START by failing to extend the agreement would be a serious mistake for strategic stability and US security,” said the letter signed by eight legislators including Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
At the same time, Putin said Moscow would not be afraid of shelving the treaty because it was developing a new generation of weapons that will “ensure Russia’s security” in the long term.
“When it comes to creating hyper(sonic) weapons, we have overtaken our competitors.”