President Donald Trump has announced the decision to exit from the bedrock 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which bans all land-based missiles carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or 310 to 3,420 miles shorter- and intermediate-range missiles. It does not cover air-launched or sea-launched weapons. National Security Adviser (NSA) John R. Bolton is going to discuss the president’s decision with the Russian leadership during his upcoming visit to Moscow on Oct. 22-23.
It’s not a coincidence that the issue of alleged violations of the INF Treaty by Russia was put on the agenda of NATO defense ministers held on October 3-4 in Brussels. US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Moscow was in “blatant violation” – the view largely shared by NATO partners. The very fact that the US briefed the allies on the issue was a sign that the decision had already been made by the administration to be formally acknowledged now. The Nuclear Posture Review, released in February, called for the development of ground-launched medium-range missiles.
At the July summit, the NATO leaders agreed in the declaration that “the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the Treaty.” But they did not say they approved the idea of deploying American missiles as a response. The missile in question is the 9M729 (NATO designation SSC-8) but the US has never said when and where it was tested to exceed the 500 kilometers limit allowed by the Treaty.
The alliance urged Russia to address these concerns. It should be noted that in its turn NATO has never addressed Russia’s concerns over US violations, such as the use of Mk41 launchers capable of firing intermediate range cruise missiles as well as armed drones and target missiles with a range exceeding the INF-imposed limitations. The list is long enough.
It is the second time the US tore up a major arms control treaty with Russia. The first one was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (the ABM Treaty) President George W. Bush Jr. pulled the US out from in 2002. Neither the USSR nor the Russian Federation ever scrapped an arms control agreement. The ensuing development of ballistic missile defense systems have become a snag on the way to hinder further arms control efforts.
Washington and Moscow have repeatedly accused each other of violations but the US decision to withdraw triggers questions. Why the proposal to negotiate a new treaty with stronger verification and compliance measures is not even on the agenda? Why new ideas on how to make the document better have not been offered for consideration by the Special Verification Commission (SVC)? Has Moscow refused to consider the possibility of adding on-site verification to the Treaty’s text? Is the idea of new strengthened inspection procedures not worth consideration and should be turned a blind eye on?
Perhaps, it’s because the US does not care about violations. It wants to get rid of the treaty for other reasons. One of them is to get the advantage by deploying such missiles near Russia’s borders to acquire a first nuclear strike capability with the strategic arsenal intact. For instance, the US Army is working on long-range artillery rockets that can exceed the 500 km range to station them in Europe. The weapon will serve as a means of delivering intermediate range strikes.
The other reason is not related to Russia or Europe. The US Nuclear Posture Review says “China likely already has the largest medium and intermediate-range missile force in Asia, and probably the world.” In his statement on withdrawal from the INF Treaty, President Trump said any agreement on intermediate range missiles must include China too. A military conflict between the US and China is likely. The US needs medium range missiles to strike its mainland. And it’s not China only. As Eric Sayers, a CSIS expert, put it “Deploying conventionally-armed ground-launched intermediate-range missiles may be key to reasserting US military superiority in East Asia.”
What will the withdrawal lead to? The INF Treaty is fundamental to European security. NATO will be divided over the issue with few nations ready to host the weapons, except Poland and the Baltic States happy to get the American military presence they have been longing for. This could lead to another rift among the allies at a time when that relationship is at a nadir because of trade wars and the rift over the Iran deal. Many Europeans still remember the 1983 protests to prevent the deployment of America’s missiles on national territories. They know well that an intermediate ground-based missile Russia will be free to deploy without the restrictions in place is not a threat to the continental USA while the countries of Old Continent will become a target. The INF Treaty will cease to be effective in six months after the US withdrawal, which is still to be made official. Europe should not sit idle watching the US leaving the Treaty. There is still some time left to press the US into thinking twice about the consequences.
The INF Treaty is not the only one teetering on the brink. The New Start Treaty, the remaining pillar of arms control, has a slim chance to survive. The Russian TASS news agency has just reported the US is unlikely to extend it and there are no talks on another agreement to take its place. Russia (the Soviet Union) and the US have always had an arms control treaty in effect since the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963. Ever since the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) Treaty was signed 1972, there have been negotiated constraints on nuclear arsenals. It may all change in 2021 when the New START expires, if not extended till 2026, to trigger an unfettered arms race. The entire system of arms control will unravel as a result of US withdrawal from the INF Treaty.