Abandoning the INF Treaty: Risking an Arms Race

Ronald Reagan, then president of America, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987.

By: Samira Pakmehr, Columnist

On October 20, 2018, Donald Trump declared the United States’ intent to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. Signed towards the end of the Cold War in 1987, this agreement required the U.S. and Russia to eliminate intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Concerns over Russia’s violations of the treaty terms date back to 2008 under Obama’s presidency and provide the basis for President Trump’s decision to withdraw.[i] While withdrawal from the INF treaty may be legally justifiable and promote nuclear deterrence, such a move risks brewing an arms race and jeopardizes the security of allies.

The INF Treaty subsided nuclear tensions and laid the foundations for subsequent arms-limitation agreements. The Soviet Union first began deploying its intermediate-range ballistic missile, the SS-20, with nuclear warheads in the late 1970s. Concerns regarding this specific missile included the ability to launch on short notice and the system’s mobility, which allowed the Soviets to rapidly target American allies throughout the eastern hemisphere without warning.[ii] This prompted the U.S. to enhance its own posture by deploying missiles capable of striking the USSR from European member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).[iii] In response to escalating threats from both sides, the two superpowers decided to enter negotiations and curtail the deployment of such weapons.[iv] Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the 1987 INF treaty banning all US and Soviet ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.[v] The agreements resulted in the Soviet Union destroying 1,846 missiles, including SS-20s, and the U.S. destroying 846 missiles.[vi] The INF treaty also set the groundwork for future arms control agreements, such as the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which reduced the number nuclear warheads on long-range Soviet and American weapons.[vii] Eliminating or limiting entire groups of weapons drastically decreased the chance of nuclear war during the Cold War era.

President Trump claims he wants to abandon the treaty because of Russian non-compliance.[viii] The Obama administration officially accused Russia of testing a prohibited missile in 2014 to intimidate European states.[ix] Since this initial accusation, the State Department’s Annual Report discussing arms control compliance presents violations annually. Through April 2018, the Trump administration remained committed for “Russia to return to compliance to ensure the continued viability of the INF Treaty” earlier this April.[x] In the president’s recent remarks, his decision to terminate the treaty changed American strategy towards Russia.[xi] Trump’s interest in developing nuclear arsenal outside INF boundaries reveals efforts to increase American influence in the nuclear world.[xii]

Expanding US weapons capabilities unshackles the country’s ability to counter rival nuclear powers. Beyond Russia, the U.S. seeks to intimidate two other nuclear aspirants that raise security concerns, China and North Korea.[xiii] Unbound by the INF treaty, China remains free to develop its intermediate-range missiles and ambitious nuclear program in Asia and the Pacific. Similarly, North Korea maintains nuclear arsenal and weapons facilities that the Trump administration wishes to eradicate.[xiv] Withdrawing from the treaty clears the path for US ballistic missiles to deploy freely, incentivizing states to denuclearize while demonstrating a strategic US military advantage.[xv]

Withdrawing from the INF Treaty would more freely assert US hard power, but it risks initiating a new international arms race. U.S. termination of the treaty empowers Vladimir Putin’s potential to transcend international law while questioning US capacity to preserve it, a reoccurring theme the Russian President has presented in recent public speeches.[xvi] Challenging the purpose of other arms agreements like START I may occur, dismantling key standards in the area of arms control.[xvii] Russia now has no reason to comply to the treaty’s guidelines, and remains free to deploy banned missiles at its own will.[xviii] As demonstrated during the Cold War, when one state increases its military power, its adversary typically does the same. Uncertainty regarding Russian nuclear forces and intentions will likely sway the U.S. to expand its own weapons systems alike.[xix] American allies, such as Germany, worry about the withdrawal’s consequences for their national interests.[xx] The U.S. and Russia are likely to use Europe as a station for intermediate-range missiles against each other, further escalating tensions on the continent.[xxi] If the U.S. asks NATO members to deploy weapons aimed at Russia, it may cause a divide between allies that seek to bolster deterrents against Russia and those that wish to forgo any involvement.[xxii]

Deserting the INF Treaty imposes great risks and demands on allies that American policymakers must consider thoroughly before reaching a final decision. A lack of concrete arms control treaties may place European countries at the center of a looming and uncertain arms race. An unrestricted international nuclear order brings past Cold War sentiments back to the present. Weapons proliferation in such a hostile environment risks splitting alliances, a consequence the U.S. will suffer from during its struggle for dominance in the international nuclear realm.













[i] U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress,” by Amy F. Woolf, R43832 (2018), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R43832.pdf.

[ii] Hilary Hurd and Elena Chachko, “U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty: The Facts and the Law,” Lawfare, October 25, 2018, https://www.lawfareblog.com/us-withdrawal-inf-treaty-facts-and-law.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Intermediate-Range-Nuclear-Forces-Treaty.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] U.S. Library of Congress, “Russian Compliance.”

[vii] Uri Friedman, “Trump Hates International Treaties. His Latest Target: A Nuclear-Weapons Deal With Russia,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/10/trump-withdraw-inf-treaty-why/573715/.

[viii] The White House, “Remarks by President Trump Before Air Force One Departure,” October 20, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-air-force-one-departure-4/.

[ix] U.S. Department of State, “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” (July 2014), https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2014/230047.htm.

[x] U.S. Department of State, “2018 Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” (April 2018), https://www.state.gov/t/avc/rls/rpt/2018/280532.htm#INF%20TREATY.

[xi] The White House, “Remarks by President Trump.”

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Uri Friedman, “Trump Hates International Treaties.”

[xiv] Marc A. Thiessen, “The real reason behind Trump’s nuclear treaty withdrawal isn’t Russia. It’s North Korea,” The Washington Post, October 25, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-nuclear-treaty-withdrawal-sends-a-message-to-north-korea/2018/10/25/ace9c25e-d86c-11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html?utm_term=.4114f82f98a0.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Vladimir Putin, “Plenary Session of the 15th Anniversary Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” (Sochi, October 18, 2018), http://valdaiclub.com/events/posts/articles/vladimir-putin-meets-with-valdai-discussion-club/.

[xvii] “Putin: Russia Will Respond ‘Swiftly, Effectively’ to New US Missiles in Europe,” Sputnik, October 24, 2018, https://sputniknews.com/world/201810241069168043-putin-conte-press-conference/.

[xviii] Martin B. Malin, “Trump’s INF announcement: Another gift to Putin?” The Hill, October 25, 2018, https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/412858-trumps-inf-announcement-another-gift-to-putin.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] “ ‘Don’t throw baby out with bath water,’ Germany tells U.S. on INF treaty,” Reuters, October 22, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-nuclear-trump-germany/dont-throw-baby-out-with-bath-water-germany-tells-u-s-on-inf-treaty-idUSL8N1X268H.

[xxi] “INF treaty: Russia ‘will respond’ to new US missiles in Europe,” BBC, October 24, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45971537.

[xxii] Leonid Bershidsky, “Trump’s Withdrawal From Nuclear Treaty Hurts U.S. Allies,” Bloomberg, October 22, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-10-22/trump-s-withdrawal-from-inf-treaty-revives-old-headaches.

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