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US calls on South Africa to persuade Russia to comply with treaty that limits nuclear weapons

US calls on South Africa to persuade Russia to comply with treaty that limits nuclear weapons
A Topol intercontinental ballistic missile on display at a Russian Armed Forces exhibition in Moscow on 16 January 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipenkov)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to sow nuclear "instability and fear" says Washington.

The US has called on South Africa to use its influence to persuade Russia to return to compliance with the New START Treaty between America and Russia which limits the nuclear missile stockpiles of the two countries and allows them to monitor each other’s nuclear facilities. 

“Russia needs to hear from countries like South Africa that it must return to compliance with the New START Treaty and contribute to global stability,”  Mallory Stewart, the US assistant secretary of state for arms control and verification, said in remarks prepared for delivery at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Cape Town recently. 

On 21 February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was suspending its participation in New START, saying it would not allow the US to continue inspecting its nuclear facilities. He claimed the US was continuing to develop new nuclear weapons, which the US has denied.

Russia did not withdraw from the treaty completely and officials clarified that it would continue to abide by the numerical limits on nuclear missiles in the treaty.

But Stewart pointed out that Moscow’s suspension of its participation meant that it was no longer communicating with the US and this breakdown in dialogue presented a danger not only to the US but to global security. She said the US was continuing to inform Russia about its nuclear activities under the treaty but that it could not unilaterally do so indefinitely.

[The treaty] kept both the US and Russia from arms racing. It has kept us from misunderstanding and miscalculation.

“Putin’s rhetoric with respect to nuclear weapons has been consistently irresponsible and elevates nuclear risks,” Stewart said, adding that Russia was seeking to sow instability and fear by suspending its compliance with New START, “the last remaining bilateral treaty numerically limiting US and Russian nuclear forces”.  

“Russia seems to believe that the New START Treaty can be used as leverage to pressure the United States and our partners and allies to diminish our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“We have been very clear that Russia’s actions on the New START Treaty will not deter the United States from supporting Ukraine. 

“Nevertheless, we continue to believe that New START is worth preserving and we support the treaty’s full and mutual implementation. Washington and Moscow have been able to keep strategic stability matters separate from broader geopolitical challenges for over half a century. That approach made the world safer then. It would make us all safer now.

South Africa Russia nuclear weapons

Military vehicles carrying the DF-41 intercontinental nuclear missile roll past Tiananmen Square during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in Beijing, on 1 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Wu Hong)

 “It’s kept both the US and Russia from arms racing. It has kept us from misunderstanding and miscalculation. And it really has in that way protected the global community. So it’s important not just in a bilateral context but in a multilateral context.” 

Read more in Daily Maverick: US condemns Russia for moving nuclear weapons to Belarus, will not adjust posture

Stewart said the US was trying to find ways to build on risk reduction in the multilateral arena, including by applying pressure on Russia to return to New START. It was also trying to engage more fulsomely with China in risk reduction. The US was trying to get back to a stable global environment that supported arms control as the necessary element of national and international security and supported deterrence to prevent escalation and conflicts from arising,

The Chinese nuke question

Stewart also called on South Africa to put pressure on China over its nuclear build-up. 

“The People’s Republic of China is undertaking the most massive expansion of nuclear forces in its history. If the PRC continues at this pace, it could have as many as 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 – roughly equal to the deployed forces of the United States or Russia.  

“The PRC’s rapid and non-transparent nuclear weapons build-up raises questions about the PRC’s intent and policies.  

“In this context, it is little surprise that the PRC is the only one of the five NPT nuclear weapon states not implementing a moratorium on production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons, despite claiming to support negotiation of a treaty banning such production.”

The five states which are permitted to maintain nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are the US, Russia, China, UK and France. The NPT forbids other states from acquiring nuclear weapons, though several have. It also commits those five nations to make real efforts to disarm. Many non-nuclear weapons states, including South Africa, criticise the five states for inadequate disarmament efforts.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: A new look into why the US blocked exports of nuclear fuel components to Koeberg

Stewart said: “We hope the PRC will agree to work with the United States bilaterally and with the multilateral community to develop tools like transparency and confidence-building measures that improve crisis stability and reduce nuclear risks. We can all agree that any nuclear crisis will not only affect the nuclear powers, it will affect the world.  

“South Africa should join its voice to the growing chorus of countries calling on the PRC to be more transparent about its nuclear build-up, to halt its production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons, and to engage with the United States so that we all can work to reduce nuclear risk.”

The US and other Western governments have been critical of South Africa for abstaining from every United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine so far.

Read Daily Maverick’s Ukraine invasion archives here.

But Stewart did praise South Africa for supporting a US-sponsored resolution which the General Assembly resolution adopted in December 2022, calling on all states to commit not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests into outer space.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Reserve Bank warns of a shock to the system over SA’s ‘neutral’ Russia-Ukraine stance

These missile tests create debris in space which can be dangerous. In November 2021 the crew of the International Space Station had to take evasive action to avoid being hit by debris from a Russian direct-ascent missile blast.

Stewart noted that South Africa was one of 155 nations that supported the resolution. Nine nations, including Russia and its close allies, voted against it. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    Waste of time trying to persuade putin to comply with any international treaty or agreements previously agreed to by russia. Ask Ukraine

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:

    South Africa should join its voice to this important matter. The morally deficient stance of the ANC government after the heady first days of democracy leaves a lot to be desired. That’s not to say many of the other parties have done much better. The belief that a fancy sedan is an indicator of moral rectitude AND suitability for governance is smallminded if one chooses to be kind. The inability to understand that being a true friend is not simply acquiescing to utter stupidity and self-dectructive behaviour that endangers the lives of millions and violates the sovereignty of a member of the international community of nations is an indictment on the intelligence of the current government. It also begs the question is the leadership of the governing party and indeed the national cabinet a bunch of forked tongue snakes or whether they believe their own rhetoric about Russia fighting imperialism by attempting to violently build an empire by conquering neighbouring states.

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