After announcing his intentions of withdrawing from the INF Treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) in October, President Donald Trump officially began the process of U.S. withdrawal on February 2. President Trump cited Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty for its development and implementation of the nuclear capable ground-launched SSC-8 cruise missile (also known as the Novator 9M729) which analysts say has a range that exceeds the 500 kilometers that is banned by the treaty. Trump also expressed concern over rising nuclear powers such as China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran that were not part of the bilateral treaty that was signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. Many fear that the withdrawal from the treaty will begin a new arms race.
In withdrawing the United States from the INF Treaty, Donald Trump stated, “We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other. We will move forward with developing our own military response options and will work with NATO and our other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct.”
The INF Treaty came into being after the Euromissile crises of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when the Soviets deployed SS-20 missiles that could target most of Europe with great accuracy and from deep within Soviet territory. The missiles could quickly hit their targets within minutes after being launched which put America at a disadvantage because it was relying on long range intercontinental and sea-launched missiles for defense. To counter the new threat, the U.S. and NATO allies deployed Pershing II ballistic missiles and new ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe. These missiles could reach and destroy Moscow within ten minutes of launch.
To relieve the escalating tensions and the risk of accidental nuclear war given the short response time leaders faced upon detecting a potential first strike, the U.S. and the Soviets began talks that led to the creation of the INF Treaty. The treaty banned the new missiles on both sides along with flight-testing and development of nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles that have a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The INF Treaty led to the destruction of nearly 3,000 such weapons, with the Soviets having to destroy nearly twice as many as the U.S.
While the INF Treaty was heralded as a great diplomatic accomplishment by relieving nuclear tensions when it was signed, it did have a major shortcoming. That shortcoming was in the form that the agreement was only between the two largest nuclear powers in a world with multiple nuclear-capable nations along with others with nuclear ambitions. Those non-signatory nations were not beholden to any missile ban and as they developed their technology, a time could come where they had the ability to gain an advantage on America and the Soviet Union/Russia and their respective interests.
Before the Trump administration expressed concerns over the threats from nations that were not part of the INF Treaty, Vladimir Putin was discussing the issue in public. In the mid-2000’s he began publicly expressing the treaty’s shortcomings and raising the possibility of withdrawal if those shortcomings were not addressed. In 2007, after a meeting with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates he stated, “We need other international participants to assume the same obligations which have been assumed by the Russian Federation and the U.S.” He went on to say, “If we are unable to attain such a goal… it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the [INF Treaty] in a situation where other countries do develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity.” The country probably most on his mind at the time was China which Russia was then hitting another rough patch in their relationship with.
During that time—the mid-2000’s—it is believed Russia began developing the SSC-8. By 2014 the Obama administration found the SSC-8 and its testing to be in violation of the INF Treaty. Russia has denied that it has violated the treaty, but most western military analysts and NATO leaders believe otherwise. In return of being accused of violations, Russia also accused the U.S. of violating the treaty by testing missile defense technology. The U.S. fully denies the allegations.
Many observers say it is clear, given Putin’s past statements and what appears to be convincing evidence of cheating, that Russia wanted out of the treaty but could not be perceived to be the party to cause its collapse. When President Trump announced his decision to pull the U.S. out of INF, it gave Russia the excuse it needed. On the day the U.S. officially sent notification of its withdrawal, Putin announced that Russia was also pulling out of the treaty and would begin designing and building weapons previously banned by the treaty. To attempt to alleviate concerns about entering a new arms race, and putting any blame on one starting on the U.S., Putin said during a televised cabinet meeting that “…we must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race,” and said that money for new missiles will come out of the existing defense budget.
By giving the Russians an excuse to exit the treaty, many feel that Trump shifted the onus away from holding Russia accountable for its cheating. Critics argue that it was better to keep Russia inside the treaty while working to expand its restrictions to other non-signatory nations no matter how difficult the prospect. This would seem to be the commonsense approach. Now with an unrestrained Russia, NATO members will be forced to reconsider hosting missiles in their countries. A prospect that brings back bad memories of the mass protests that greeted some NATO countries when they hosted missile systems in the early 1980’s. Any country that hosts such weapons automatically become targets in a Russian nuclear attack—clearly an unpopular prospect.
Whether the world likes it or not, a new and dangerous era has begun with the abandonment of the INF Treaty. Though, historically, such nuclear brinkmanship will lead to new treaties that better accommodate the risk of nuclear war. Hopefully, with luck, mistakes and major miscalculations will not happen in the meantime, and any possible new treaty will not be as flawed as the previous. Failing those in the nuclear age can lead to the death of millions and permanently alter the course of human civilization.