Bottom Line Up Front
- The U.S. has announced it will pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987.
- Washington’s departure from the hallmark treaty was not unexpected; the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the INF agreement since 2014.
- The decision to leave is quite complicated and resists the usual black-or-white support or condemnation.
- Some have argued that the treaty hobbles America’s ability to deter China in the Asia-Pacific more than it helps the U.S. against Russian force posture in Europe.
In 1987, President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Particularly for its time, the pact was significant, as the issue of intermediate nuclear-armed missiles in Europe, with their very short flight times, had increased the danger of actual nuclear conflict. Beginning in 1976, the Soviet Union developed and then deployed the SS-20 Saber intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in Europe. In 1979, the U.S. announced it would counter the new Soviet threat with its Pershing II IRBM, as well as ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs); the two U.S. systems were deployed to Europe beginning in 1983, sparking widespread protests in several Western countries following the announcement.
For the two signatories, the INF Treaty completely banned land-based missiles, including cruise and ballistic missiles, with ranges between 311 miles and 3,420 miles. This was a remarkable achievement in dampening the risk of nuclear conflict. By 1991, the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) had destroyed all of its SS-20 IRBM and launchers; likewise, by 1991, the U.S. had destroyed the last of its Pershing 11 missile systems. In 2014, the U.S. publicly accused Russia of violating the INF with its development of the land-based cruise missile SSC-8 (also called Novator 9M729). The SSC-8 is exactly the type of weapon banned under the INF. Russia denied (and continues to deny) that it was in violation of the treaty. In every version of the U.S. State Department annual report, ‘Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,’ issued between 2014 to 2018, the U.S. reasserted its claim that Russia is violating the INF. Negotiations have stalled, even amid unspecified reports that Russia has actually deployed the SSC-8.
The Trump Administration has long argued that since Russia in in violation of the INF, and refuses to comply with the 31-year old treaty, the U.S. would pull out of the agreement altogether. On October 23, U.S. National Security Adviser Bolton held meetings in Moscow with Russian President Putin over the fate of the INF. After the meetings, Bolton stated the two sides were at an impasse, commenting, ‘It is the American position that Russia is in violation. It is Russia’s position that they’re not in violation. So, one has to ask, how do you convince the Russians to come back into compliance with obligations they don’t think they’re violating?’ President Trump has publicly stated his intention to pull out of the INF, most recently at a campaign rally on October 20.The decision is not yet final, though it appears almost certain. NATO leadership has supported the U.S. position that Russia is in direct violation of the INF but says its members are still in consolation regarding any final decision. The EU does not support U.S. abrogation of the treaty, instead urging in an October 22 statement for the ‘United States to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world.’
For the U.S., China—not Russia—is the more significant reason to leave the INF. China is not a signatory of the bilateral INF treaty and has developed a ground-based IRBM capability that would be prohibited under the agreement. The U.S., which has an overwhelming sea and air-based IRBM capability, is concerned that the lack of a U.S. ground-based IRBM capability in places such as Guam or Okinawa might make China more likely to move against Taiwan or contested islands in the South China Sea. The argument among those supporting a decision to leave the INF is summed up by Bolton’s statement after his meetings in Moscow. He said that the INF ‘was a Cold War bilateral ballistic missile-related treaty, in a multipolar ballistic missile world,’ an argument also put forth by President Trump when he said on October 22 that the U.S. might indeed leave the INF in order to build up its nuclear arsenal in response to new threats, which ‘includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game.’ The decision to pull out of one of the most successful nuclear arms treaties will have sizable impacts on a wide range of geopolitical issues: a new arms race is a distinct possibility, as is yet another rift between the U.S. and some of its closest allies.