The United States has said that it wants to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) because of alleged violations by Russia. Moscow denies the charges and says the move is consistent with U.S. plans to loosen all international constraints on its behavior. Russia is likely cheating on the INF, but that is no reason to abandon the treaty yet. It has served European security well and abandoning the agreement would do more harm to arms control efforts generally, a development that could have profound implications for Asian security too.
The INF treaty was agreed in 1987 between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. It bans all nuclear-armed missiles in Europe with ranges from 500 to 5,500 km. It eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons and effectively capped a nuclear arms race that threatened Europe. At their summit last summer, NATO defense ministers confirmed that the INF treaty “has been crucial to Euro-Atlantic security.”
Four years ago, Washington accused Moscow of violating the treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile, the 9M729, that exceeded INF limits. Three years later, the U.S. said that Russia had “secretly deployed” one operational unit of the weapon, called the SSC-8. Moscow called the charges “totally unfounded” and countered that U.S. plans to deploy antimissile systems in Europe make it the real violator of the treaty. The U.S. denies that allegation.
The U.S. has pressed Moscow to discuss the charges. The Special Verification Commission, established by the INF treaty to address violations, held two meetings but they made no progress. In January, the Trump administration warned that it would be “taking new diplomatic, military, and economic measures … to induce the Russian Federation to return to compliance.” It also said it would begin research on “concepts and options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems” that are not prohibited by the treaty.
Last week, the U.S. apparently decided that it had had enough. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has long opposed the treaty said that he would inform Russia of the decision to withdraw during meetings in Moscow this week. Bolton argues that the treaty puts the U.S. in an “excessively weak position” against Russia “and more importantly China.” U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed the reports, saying, “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”
It will take six months to do so, and much can happen during that time if Moscow cares about the fate of the agreement. U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, while admitting that he is concerned about Russian violations, has backed the reintroduction of submarine-launched cruise missiles to U.S. naval vessels in response — but primarily as incentive for the Russians to return to negotiations and treaty compliance.
Even Moscow’s compliance may not be enough. While U.S. officials worry about the Russian threat, they also criticize the INF because it does not restrain China’s growing arsenal of short- and intermediate-range missiles. By one estimate, 90 percent of China’s missiles violate the terms of the INF treaty and this, U.S. strategic planners argue, puts the U.S. at a disadvantage in a regional conflict. In his statement, Trump said that he wants Russia and China “to come to us” and say they will not develop these weapons.
This argument is both ironic and disingenuous. Ironic, because it was thought that Russia was concerned by Chinese capabilities; disingenuous because the U.S. can use sea- or air-based systems against China, as can its allies, if they choose to develop strike systems.
The greatest concern is that this is more evidence of U.S. attempts to systematically dissemble constraints on its behavior. Bolton and others who think like him in the Trump administration are also opposed to the New START treaty on strategic nuclear weapons. It was negotiated in 2010 and expires in 2021; it can be extended for five years if both governments agree. There are few things more terrifying than the prospect of a world characterized by great power competition that has no treaties constraining the nuclear weapons competition.
Japan was rightly concerned at the time of its negotiation that the INF agreement would allow Russia to withdraw weapons from Europe and redeploy them to Asia. Russia has largely chosen not to do so but if the INF is abandoned, Moscow would have no incentive to restrain deployments in Europe and Asia. Japan should be even more concerned about discrediting arms control as a whole. China has long insisted that it will only engage in strategic arms talks when the U.S. and Russia bring their force levels down to Chinese levels — that was always a distant prospect, but it will recede even further into the future if New START is torn up as well. Treaties must be honored, of course, but there is a long way to go before the U.S. gives up on the INF.