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Will the collapse of the INF treaty lead to a new arms race between the U.S. and Russia?

What the INF’s Treaty’s collapse means for nuclear proliferation (2019).  On Friday, the United States is set to withdraw from a Cold War–era agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, that banned Washington and Moscow from using certain types of missiles. The end of the treaty could spark a new nuclear arms race.

What’s in the treaty?

These weapons systems are considered particularly destabilizing because the missiles can reach their targets within ten minutes, giving little warning and time for decision-making and, consequently, raising the specter of miscalculation.

The INF Treaty required the destruction of existing systems and resulted in the dismantling of 2,692 missiles—1,846 by Russia and 846 by the United States. It included verification requirements that laid the groundwork for future arms reduction treaties.

The landmark agreement launched a two-decade-long process of major nuclear weapons reductions by the United States and Russia. It led to a series of strategic arms reduction treaties and the historic decrease in nuclear stockpiles globally from a peak of seventy thousand in 1986 to just under fifteen thousand today.

A line chart shows an increase in global nuclear weapons stockpiles with a high of nearly 70,000 in the 1980s and a swift decrease after that.

Why is the United States withdrawing?

Earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump said the United States would terminate the treaty because of Russian noncompliance. U.S. officials claimed that Russia breached the treaty by deploying systems for an intermediate-range missiles known as the SSC-8.

President Barack Obama’s administration first voiced concerns about Russian violations in 2013, and a year later, Obama sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a letter urging discussions. Both the Obama and Trump administrations communicated with Russia more than thirty times over the issue, but to no avail.

In response to the United States’ announcement, Putin said his country would suspend its INF obligations as well. Russian officials charged that the United States had also violated the treaty, though Washington and its allies called those charges spurious.

Trump also raised concerns about China’s missiles, which are not constrained by the agreement even though an estimated 95 percent [PDF] are in the INF range. But the majority of these Chinese missiles are fitted with conventional, not nuclear, warheads, and the United States and Russia possess more than 90 percent of global nuclear stockpiles, far exceeding China’s capabilities.

Withdrawal Bad

Tensions between the US and Russia grow over nuclear arms (2019).

Tensions between the United States and Russia remained high this week in part thanks to boasts from both countries about a burgeoning arms race and an incident between NATO and Russian aircraft.

Russia on Tuesday claimed that it was winning the race to develop new, far-flying nuclear weapons despite a rocket explosion in the country that forced the government to temporarily evacuate a nearby village. Moscow’s state nuclear agency Rosatom said the accident in northern Russia happened Thursday during a rocket test on a sea platform in the White Sea, killing five people and injuring three others from the Federal Nuclear Center in Sarov, according to multiple news outlets.

Russia pledged to keep developing new weapons despite the explosion and said Moscow is ahead of other nations in developing such arms. “Our president has repeatedly said that Russian engineering in this sector significantly outstrips the level that other countries have managed to reach for the moment, and it is fairly unique,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.

INF Treaty and the Future of Arms Control (2019)

Lapse of treaty will increase missile threat, says UN (2019). The UN secretary general has warned that the world will lose “an invaluable brake on nuclear war” with the expiry of a cold war-era arms control treaty on Friday. The 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty has kept nuclear missiles off European soil for more than three decades, but the US and Russia have failed to agree on how to keep it alive. “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles,” António Guterres told reporters, adding that he was concerned about rising tensions between nuclear-armed states.

There have already been signs of a rekindled arms race in the class of weapons that the treaty banned: ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km. Nearly 2,700 of the cruise and ballistic nuclear missiles were destroyed under the treaty, removing a potent source of European insecurity. A targeted country would only have a few minutes warning of a launch, fueling paranoia and hair-trigger alerts on both sides of the Iron Curtain. These weapons are now beginning to return.

Fears of a new arms race, as US/Russia set to let INF treaty collapse (2019).  A landmark nuclear agreement that eliminated an entire class of land-based missiles is set to lapse on August 2 as both the United States and Russia officially withdraw from the 31-year-old deal.

The bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banned the Soviet Union and United States from developing, producing, or deploying ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers after it was ratified by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988.

(Click graphic to enlarge.)

Critics have warned that the pullout from the INF Treaty could lead to a new arms race between the United States and Russia — the successor state of the Soviet Union.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on August 1 that the world “will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war” with the lapse of the treaty.

The INF and the successor to the Cold War-era START agreement to reduce strategic nuclear missile launchers, New START, a U.S.-Russia accord that entered into force in 2011, are two of the bedrocks of arms control between both the world’s leading nuclear-armed states.

New START will lapse in early 2021 unless the U.S. and Russian presidents decide to extend it.

U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly accused Russia of developing weapons systems that they they say are a violation of the treaty, specifically the 9M729, or SSC-8, which according to NATO has a range of about 1,500 kilometers.

Moscow says the 9M729’s range is under 500 kilometers and accuses the U.S. of breaking the deal.

But there have been other accusations and counteraccusations as well.

Eighty-eight-year-old former Soviet leader Gorbachev told Russia’s Interfax news agency in an interview published on August 1 that Washington’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty was “making global politics unpredictable and its development chaotic.”

He urged both parties to “concentrate on preserving the New START treaty as the last pillar of global strategic security” but added that “judging by statements by U.S. administration officials, its future is uncertain.”

President Donald Trump on February 1 announced the U.S. plan to withdraw from the INF Treaty, saying it would suspend its obligations the following day and inform Russia that it would effectively withdraw from the accord in six months’ time — on August 2.

“Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement, so we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re going to pull out,” the White House said at the time.

Move will undermine US security (2019). Below is a statement by physicist David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Withdrawing from this landmark treaty is shortsighted and will ultimately undermine the security of the United States and its allies. The president’s decision will increase tensions between the United States and Russia and open the door to a competition in conventionally armed missiles that will undermine stability.

“While there appears to be evidence that Russia violated the treaty by testing a new ground-launched cruise missile, Russian complaints about U.S. missile defense systems in Poland and Romania also have merit. These systems are intended to launch interceptor missiles, but appear to be capable of launching cruise missiles as well, in which case deploying the launchers violates the treaty. The United States has apparently not been willing to discuss this issue with Russia in an effort to resolve the concerns of both nations and preserve the treaty.

“To claim the United States is justified in pulling out of the treaty because of Russian violations does not take the full picture into account.

“What apparently underlies this decision is the administration’s aversion to negotiated agreements that in any way constrain U.S. weapons systems. But what we’ve gotten from this treaty is the destruction of 1,846 Soviet missiles, in exchange for 846 U.S. missiles, and an agreement that has prevented a buildup of these missiles for more than three decades. Working to resolve the issues around the treaty is a better move for U.S. security than ending it.

“Pulling out of this treaty leaves New START as the only bilateral nuclear arms agreement between the U.S and Russia. If President Trump pulls out of that treaty as well or allows it to lapse, it will be the first time since 1972 that the two countries will be operating without any mutual constraints on their nuclear forces.”

Mourning the INF Treaty (2019).To account for the unpredictable behavior of humans in high-stakes situations, weapons should be designed and deployed with an underlying strategic logic rather than based only on their technical characteristics. The Trump administration, like the administration of Barack Obama before it, lacks the most important ingredient of such a strategy: an actual set of policies that defines U.S. interests and goals in Europe and Asia.

In the heat and fog of war, decision-makers make assumptions, jump to conclusions, and commit errors.

Under Obama, the United States mortgaged much of its foreign policy to the overriding goal of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran. The Trump administration’s approach, meanwhile, reflects the president’s general ignorance of, and hostility to, alliances and treaties. As it stands, the U.S. reaction to Russian cheating has amounted to an admission that Washington doesn’t like the INF Treaty any more than Moscow does and that it wishes everyone in Europe the best of luck as it heads off to start arms racing the Chinese. More by necessity than conviction, NATO has declared its support for the U.S. exit from the treaty, but the message to Europe is clear: “You’re on your own.”

What would a more comprehensive U.S. strategy look like? First and foremost, it should disentangle American interests in Asia and Europe. The United States is time limited in its decisions about Europe, where the equally important New START treaty is set to expire in early 2021. Responding to China’s rise, meanwhile, will take much more than reopening the door to any single weapons system: more investment in conventional forces and especially a recommitment to U.S. naval power in the Pacific.

In Europe, the United States should engage Russia on several issues that both sides care about, such the New START treaty, sanctions, and Ukraine. The United States should go into these talks with clear plans for exacting a price for Russian intransigence. Linking such disparate issues might not have been advisable in an earlier time, when Washington and Moscow still had open lines of communication to discuss them separately. Today, however, relations are at such a low point that only a forceful and comprehensive engagement can head off a larger conflict down the line.

For such talks to be successful, the United States needs to treat NATO members like allies rather than clients or serfs and to work with them to reinforce the alliance’s eastern borders. A more powerful conventional defense bolstered by U.S. forces would serve as a deterrent, ensuring that Russia would lose any conventional engagement quickly and decisively, before its half-baked nuclear threats could even come into play.

Most important, U.S. leaders should ask themselves what, exactly, they are willing to fight for, and why. The United States needs a better plan than to keep leaning not only on the crutch of nuclear weapons but on weapons systems it got rid of more than 30 years ago.

World will lose break on nuclear war with end of INF treaty (2019).

Withdrawal Good

Leaving the INF treaty now is the right call (2018).  Yet much has changed since President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev concluded the agreement more than 30 years ago, and the United States is more than justified in its choice to walk away from it today. And while the abruptness of the administration’s announcement carries with it some undesirable short-term consequences, U.S. security will benefit in the long run.

Foremost, Russia has been in material breach of the INF Treaty for at least four years. In July 2014, the Obama administration publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty by testing a new cruise missile, likely a ground-launched version of the SS-N-30A sea-launched “Kalibr,” which U.S. intelligence has designated the SSC-8. Since 2014, Russia has made no effort to come back into compliance. Rather, Russia has doubled down byproducing and deploying entire battalions of these new weapons. Russia has also tested a newer ballistic missile at a range just above 5,500 kilometers, complying with the letter of the treaty, but certainly not the spirit.

It is also worth considering that even these reports may fail to reflect the entire scope of illegal Russian INF activity. Indeed, most of the INF Treaty’s formal inspection protocols expired nearly two decades ago. Today, the United States relies mostly on overhead surveillance and other means of espionage to ensure treaty compliance. While these methods have succeeded in detecting Moscow’s material breaches, it may remain difficult to assess the full extent of Russia’s new intermediate-range missile force. The SSC-8 launcher, for example, is similar to other Russian INF-compliant cruise missile launchers, making them hard to distinguish using satellite imagery alone.

Considering these developments, it makes little sense for the United States to remain in a bilateral treaty that has only one compliant party. Simply keeping the INF Treaty artificially inflated in perpetuity only provides a unilateral restraint and waters down U.S. expectations of treaty partners across the board. The United States, after all, may one day wish to engage China in arms control. Should the United States continue to keep INF on life support in the face of clear Russian duplicity, what lesson might China (or others) draw?

Some have argued, both from the political left and right, that the United States should keep INF afloat while trying to compel Russia to one day return to compliance. This approach has been ineffective to date, and a path to success in the near future looks doubtful. Congress has imposed economic sanctions aimed at bringing Russia back into INF compliance. Russia has proven defiant in the face of sanctions, as shown by its unwillingness to budge over its annexation of Crimea and war on Ukraine and biting sanctions that resulted. Some security analysts suggest that the United States could give concessions to Russia in exchange for its return to the treaty, such as giving up one or both U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense sites in Romania and Poland. This would be especially dangerous, however, as it would devastate the credibility of U.S. security commitments on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) eastern flank. It would also encourage Russia to continue using its weapons program to extract further concessions.

Another angle that the U.S government has taken is to pursue research and development of its own intermediate-range missiles to counterbalance Russia. This perhaps holds the most promise; history shows that Russia is most interested in arms control when it feels like it is falling behind. The Pentagon has indeed been considering several potential systems it could deploy in a post-INF world, albeit with no real funding behind them. In any case, the United States cannot conduct a fully-fledged program while remaining in the treaty, which forbids flight testing.

Even with all of the above carrots and sticks in place, it remains uncertain whether Russia would ever return to the treaty. The political environment is, after all, quite different today than in 1987. For one, Vladimir Putin is not Mikhail Gorbachev. Where Gorbachev sought avenues for rapprochement with the West, Putin remains distrustful and thrives politically off of East-West antagonism.

The strategic environment and state of technology have also changed a lot over the past 30 years. The INF Treaty was signed to remove the large number of relatively inaccurate nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles flowing into Europe in the 1980s. These are not the same kinds of weapons we see Russia embracing as it has chipped away at the INF Treaty. What we see is Russia deploying long-range conventionally-armed cruise missiles that employ satellite navigation to precisely target military targets and critical infrastructure. These are not weapons of mass destruction like those the INF Treaty sought to dismantle.

Pushing back on Russian propaganda about the treaty (2019).

Russian Myth:  Russia’s demonstration of the 9M729 on January 23, 2019, proved that the system is INF Treaty compliant and showed that Russia is being transparent.

Fact:  Russia’s so-called “demonstration” on January 23, 2019, of what it claimed was the 9M729 launcher and canister did not change the fact that the system is a violation of the INF Treaty, because it has been flight-tested to distances prohibited under the treaty.  The United States and most of our NATO Allies did not attend this briefing, because we all saw it for what it was – another attempt to obfuscate while giving the appearance of transparency.  The “demonstration” was completely controlled by Russia.  There is nothing that Russia can say or show to change the fact that Russia has already tested the 9M729 cruise missile to ranges beyond 500 kilometers in violation of the INF Treaty.  The United States provided to Russia in writing an illustrative framework of the steps it would need to take to return to compliance and save the INF Treaty.  Only the complete and verifiable destruction of Russia’s 9M729 missiles, launchers, and associated equipment will resolve U.S. concerns.

Russian Myth:  Russia is interested in dialogue about the treaty, while the United States is not.

Fact:  The United States has spent over six years in dialogue with the Russian Federation to try to resolve Russia’s non-compliance.  Prior to the U.S. suspension of its obligations on February 2, the United States raised Russia’s INF violation in more than 30 engagements, including at the highest levels of government.  The United States has convened six meetings of technical experts to discuss Russia’s INF Treaty violation since 2014.  This included two meetings of the Special Verification Commission, the treaty body responsible for addressing compliance concerns, in November 2016 and December 2017, and four bilateral U.S.-Russia meetings of technical experts, in September 2014, April 2015, June 2018, and January 2019.  At each of these meetings, the United States pressed Russia on its violating missile, urged it to come back into compliance, and highlighted the critical nature of our concerns.  However, we were met only with obfuscation, falsehoods, and denials.  During the past six months, senior U.S. officials continued to discuss the INF issue with their Russian counterparts, including Secretary of State Pompeo in Sochi on May 14, 2019 and at the July 17, 2019 Strategic Security Dialogue, where Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan led the U.S. interagency delegation.

Russian Myth:  We gave the Americans fully detailed information about when and at what distance tests of this missile had been conducted.

Fact:  For over four years Russia denied the existence of the missile and provided no information about it, despite the United States providing Russia the location of the tests and the names of the companies involved in the development and production of the missile.  Only after we publicly announced the missile system’s Russian designator did Russia admit that the missile exists, and it has since changed its story by claiming that the missile is incapable of ranges beyond 500 kilometers.  Russia claims that it is not obligated to provide the United States any more information about the missile, its capability, or its testing history to support Russia’s contention that the missile is treaty-compliant.  Despite such obfuscation, Russia claims that it wants to preserve the treaty.

The United States has presented Russia many sets of questions over the last six years – always addressing the same set of facts regarding the ongoing violation that Russia refuses to discuss.  Russia has refused to answer key U.S. questions about its violating missile.  First, the Russians claimed they could not identify the missile of concern to the United States, despite the United States having provided extensive information about its characteristics and testing history.  Only later, when the United States forced Russia to acknowledge the existence of the missile by publicly releasing its Russian designator, did the Russians claim the missile was not captured under the INF Treaty because its range did not exceed 500km.  Russia now claims it is not obligated to provide any additional information about this missile.

Russian Myth:  The United States wants to start an arms race.

Fact:  The facts are that the Russian Federation is producing and fielding a new offensive capability that is prohibited by the INF Treaty.  The United States is not.  The current situation is not the preference or creation of the United States.  The onus clearly falls on Russia.  As stated by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in an address to the United States Congress on April 2, 2019, “NATO’s position is united and clear.  Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty.  There are no new American missiles in Europe.  But there are new Russian missiles.”  The United States is not starting an arms race.

Furthermore, it is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who has prioritized a massive military rearmament program, who touted the development of five new strategic offensive nuclear arms in March 2018, regularly brandishes the value of Russia’s nuclear weapons, and who openly threatens to attack Europe with Russian missiles.

Russian Myth:  The United States is cheating, not Russia.

Fact:  The United States is in compliance with its obligations under the INF Treaty, and Allies affirmed this most recently in a statement issued by NATO Foreign Ministers on December 4, 2018.  Russia is not in compliance and has ignored calls for transparency from the United States and Europe.  In contrast to Russia’s refusal to answer substantively key U.S. questions about the SSC-8/9M729, the United States has provided Russia with detailed information explaining why the United States is in compliance with the INF Treaty.  The United States has even presented some of this information publicly, including in a fact sheet on the State Department webpage.

Russian Myth:  The United States is undermining European security.

Fact:  Russia is undermining European security with its INF-violating missile that was developed specifically to destroy key European military and economic targets and coerce NATO governments.  As NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has said:  “The problem is the deployment of new Russian missiles.  There are no new U.S. missiles in Europe, but there are more Russian missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and those missiles put the INF Treaty in jeopardy.”

Russia’s willingness to erode European security and reject international norms by violating a principal arms control agreement should not be a surprise.  The INF Treaty violation follows a disturbing pattern of Russian threatening activity that includes its purported annexation of Crimea, a coup attempt in Montenegro, multiple cyber hacks and attacks, interference in Western elections, and the attempted assassination of Sergey and Yulia Skripal with a military-grade nerve agent on the territory of a NATO ally.

Russian Myth:  The United States is abandoning arms control.

Fact:  As described in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States is committed to arms control efforts that advance U.S., allied, and partner security; are verifiable and enforceable; and include partners that comply responsibly with their obligations.  An arms control treaty that restrains only one side, while the other violates it with impunity, is not effective in making us safer.  Rather, it undermines the very idea of arms control as a tool to enhance our collective security.  The United States is acting to preserve the role of arms control in reducing the risk of war and avoiding unnecessary and destabilizing military competition.

Russian Myth:  The United States is manufacturing its allegations against Russia as an excuse to exit the treaty.

Fact:  The Russian Federation is producing and fielding a new offensive capability prohibited by the INF Treaty.  The Russian Federation created this problem, not the United States.  The United States has long maintained that an INF Treaty that all parties comply with contributes to global security and stability.  The United States has discussed this violation with Russia for over six years in an effort to convince Russia to return to compliance with the treaty.  We also have long stated that the status quo is untenable and our patience is not unlimited.  Unfortunately, Russia has taken no significant steps toward resolving this problem.