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Russia says it will stop participating in its last nuclear treaty with the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An unhappy kid on the playground may threaten to take his ball and go home. But what happens when a world leader threatens to take his nuclear football and go home?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia's President Vladimir Putin blames the U.S. for his invading armies' trouble in Ukraine. And now he says Russia is suspending its participation in a nuclear arms control deal with the U.S. It's a decade-old agreement called the New START treaty. Putin spoke in Moscow yesterday. And with its usual speed, Russia's legislature applied the rubber stamp today.

INSKEEP: So how much should we worry about the unraveling of a nuclear deal? NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is following the story. Geoff, good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does this agreement do?

BRUMFIEL: It caps the number of weapons on bombers, missiles and submarines to around 1,500. Now, each side is still allowed to keep a number of weapons in storage. But this is sort of the limit that can be deployed. It also allows for inspections of nuclear bases and for a lot of information exchange between the U.S. and Russia about nuclear weapons. Russia's announcement means there won't be any more inspections for the foreseeable future. And the data likely won't be shared. But Russia did say it was committed to keeping its nuclear weapons at 1,500 deployed weapons, at least for now.

INSKEEP: They're going to stay in notional compliance, or at least so they say, just not actually going to allow the inspections or anything else. Is that at least a little bit reassuring?

BRUMFIEL: Kind of. But there's a bigger picture, which is several other treaties have actually already collapsed in recent years. So in 2019, the U.S. withdrew from a treaty governing certain kinds of nuclear missiles. About a year and a half later, the U.S. and Russia both withdrew from another treaty related to nuclear weapons. Olga Oliker is with the nonprofit International Crisis Group. And she says the New START treaty is really all that's left.

OLGA OLIKER: I mean, this was the last big treaty. And if it's gone, then the entire nuclear arms control infrastructure is gone.

INSKEEP: Which, I guess, in theory, means that one side or the other could take its thousands of other nuclear warheads out of the closet or the cave or wherever they've got them and deploy them. Is this going to mean a Cold War arms race?

BRUMFIEL: Well, not yet. Right now, as I said, we're at about 1,500 warheads. And to give you a sense of how bad things were during the Cold War, at various points, each side had around 30,000 weapons. I spoke to arms control expert Lynn Rusten at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She says that Russia doesn't want to go back there.

LYNN RUSTEN: They have historically always wanted to constrain U.S. strategic weapons because they don't want to be in an arms race either.

BRUMFIEL: But she adds, the way you avoid an arms race is treaties. And those treaties do seem to be falling apart.

RUSTEN: Right now, we're just seeing a total breakdown with no prospect of recovery anytime soon.

BRUMFIEL: With the war in Ukraine grinding on, you know, I mean, the U.S. and Russian relations are at an all-time low. And Rusten and other experts I spoke to think this suspension could be the beginning of the end.

INSKEEP: Geoff, you're the science and security correspondent. I don't feel secure when you say things like beginning of the end. What do you mean?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, you know, we could return to a Cold War-like situation, except it would be a lot more complicated because now we have countries, like North Korea, which have nuclear weapons. And China is undergoing a dramatic expansion of its nuclear capabilities. So getting new treaties is going to be even harder.

INSKEEP: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks for the insights.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.