Today marks the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, after more than three decades in existence. Ultimately, the treaty could not survive an increasingly complex security environment, nor the Trump administration’s broad assault on arms control.
The INF treaty was signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Under the agreement, both the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to give up their ground-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,000 kilometers. These weapons are particularly destabilizing because of their brief flight time; it would take only minutes for a missile launched from Russia to strike a European target, and vice versa.
The first of its kind in more ways than one, the INF treaty banned an entire category of weapons, imposed reductions on the U.S. and Russian arsenals, and established a comprehensive inspections regime for verifying compliance. It successfully prevented an arms race in Europe for over 30 years, allowing both superpowers to turn their attention to other security concerns.
The INF treaty became less relevant as the security context evolved to include new nuclear states and the proliferation of more sophisticated weaponry. The Russians first proposed a joint withdrawal from the INF treaty in the mid-2000s, citing threats on their periphery that they wanted to counter with treaty-prohibited missiles. They were referring to China—but hold that thought for a moment.
The United States declined Moscow’s invitation, and a few years later, the Obama administration discovered that Russia was violating the treaty by developing, testing, and eventually deploying a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a banned range. Russia shot back with accusations that U.S. systems also violated the treaty; namely, that missile defenses in Europe are capable of launching intermediate-range cruise missiles. Efforts to resolve compliance concerns on both sides through the Special Verification Committee (SVC), the INF treaty’s compliance body, repeatedly floundered.
The Obama administration continued to call out Russia for its violation and tried to address compliance concerns, but the illegal Russian deployment did not appear to be strategically significant. The United States remained in the treaty.
The Trump administration viewed the situation differently. Not long after John Bolton became National Security Advisor, the White House announced that the United States would terminate its obligations under the INF treaty. Bolton offered two justifications for withdrawal: the Russian violation and to enable the United States to acquire ground-based intermediate-range systems (GBIRs) to deter China’s arsenal of conventional intermediate-range missiles.
The first reason is valid, if perhaps not a powerful enough reason to kill a long-standing treaty. The China rationale, however, falls flat on closer analysis. The United States already has capabilities in Asia that accomplish the deterrence mission, not to mention a much larger nuclear arsenal than China. Furthermore, U.S. allies in Asia likely will not agree to host U.S. GBIRs on their territory. Their governments view this deployment as a security risk, and their publics strongly oppose it. In fact, some of these governments have criticized the U.S. withdrawal for undermining security, while others worry that hosting U.S. GBIRs would upset relations with China. NATO also has announced it will not deploy intermediate-range systems in Europe.
Now that the treaty is dead, the United States finds itself in a situation where it cannot reasonably expect to deploy intermediate-range weapons, even though they are legal. Yet, Russia can now legally field its existing systems and develop and deploy more of them. To add insult to injury, although the decision to withdraw offers little strategic advantage to the United States, Moscow can now point the finger for killing a historic treaty at Washington (even if Russia is the originally guilty party for violating it).
In a post-INF treaty world, Russia likely will build out previously banned weapons and possibly deploy them in Europe and Asia. NATO, meanwhile, is developing a list of responses to such an expansion that could affect the U.S.-Russian strategic balance. For example, NATO is considering upgrading missile defense systems to shoot down intermediate-range missiles launched from Russia. Moscow would view that option as a provocation, especially because NATO has long maintained that European missile defense systems are aimed at countering threats from North Korea and Iran—not Russia.
The Kremlin has promised that it will respond in-kind to NATO, which could set the stage for a vicious cycle that could inflame tensions at the NATO-Russia border. There is a chance of more frequent military incidents, such as flight buzzings, which could lead to miscalculations by both militaries. The United States cannot afford greater ill will and unpredictability in its relationship with Russia, given existing pressure at the border and instability in other regions around the world.
Going forward, the United States needs to determine how to deter Russia in an INF treaty-free world. The Pentagon plans to test its Precision Strike Missile with ranges exceeding 499 km this year, but it seems to have little idea of how to deter Russia from continuing to expand its intermediate-range forces. There are two related priorities to consider: first, maintaining alliance unity, and second, preventing an arms race. The latter is important for maintaining stability in Europe, but also for U.S. national security more broadly. It is difficult enough to fund existing capabilities in the current political climate; funding an arms race would be a Sisyphean task.
Weapons systems that would breach the INF treaty were it still viable will violate both of the above principles. The United States already has capabilities that would be permitted by the treaty and that meet mission requirements for deterring Russia in Europe. Although the treaty itself is dead, Congress can keep its spirit alive by restricting procurement for any proposed solutions that would disobey the treaty’s terms. Although the House version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contained a few provisions like this, the battle will continue into future NDAA cycles.
It is now more important than ever for Washington to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). That treaty contains the only remaining limits on Russian nuclear forces, as well as a comprehensive transparency and inspections regime that gives U.S. military planners insight into Russia’s arsenal. New START is set to expire in February 2021, but could be extended to 2026 if both governments agree. Through bipartisan legislation like the McCaul-Engel and Van Hollen-Young bills, Congress plays a vital role in pressuring the White House to extend this treaty.
Unfortunately, the death of the INF treaty has already damaged U.S.-Russia relations and the institution of arms control writ large. It has potentially negative implications for other treaties, such as New START and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It is true that arms control will need to adapt to changing security needs, such as the rise of China and the emergence of new technologies, including low-yield weapons, cyber, and anti-satellite systems. But it is easier to build on and revise existing structures than to tear them down without a plan to replace them. As experts and policymakers consider how to both establish norms of behavior for new spheres of warfare and incorporate younger nuclear powers into the arms control regime, it is critical to foster strategic stability, limit the proliferation of dangerous weapons, and maintain predictability and transparency. That will be a far greater challenge in a world without the INF Treaty.