The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is heading for its demise. While the 1987 landmark arms control agreement has not been officially pronounced dead, a date for the funeral has already been set.
On December 4, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Russia has 60 days to return to compliance. Failing to do so will lead the US to trigger the six-month period of withdrawal from the treaty, making August 1 a potential turning point in the history of arms control.
The announcement did not emerge out of a vacuum. It came nearly five years after the Obama administration first accused Russia of violating the treaty and follows years of fraught relations between Moscow and the West, particularly since the former’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. It raises the grim prospect of an all-out arms race between the two powers, marking a new low in their relations.
At the heart of the dispute is Russia’s alleged development and testing of the 9M729, a nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missile that Washington claims falls within the INF-prohibited range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
While some are hoping for an eleventh-hour compromise, especially after Russia called for formal negotiations, it is unlikely the two sides will find a diplomatic solution to the current deadlock within the narrowing 60-day window.
From Moscow’s standpoint, it is Washington that has failed to comply with the treaty. The Kremlin has firmly and routinely rejected Washington’s allegations, pointing to the US drone program, the deployment of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Romania, and the use of decommissioned ICBMs as missile defense targets as sufficient grounds for its withdrawal. Washington, echoed by NATO, has denied any wrongdoing.
It is unclear if Washington is willing to make an effort to save the agreement. The US has been sparing in its efforts to save the treaty, and uncertainty remains around its true rationale for withdrawing. Some blame John Bolton, Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, who previously toyed with the idea of abrogating the treaty, for leading the charge against the INF. Others point to the burgeoning strategic competition with China as a likely rationale for Washington’s intended withdrawal.
Regardless of the exact motives, it is clear that the White House views the current status quo as wholly untenable – and perhaps rightly so. In addition to having violated its INF engagements, Russia is undergoing a complex and expensive modernization of its arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, which US decision-makers regard with growing concern. With Washington worried about remaining the only one complying with the INF treaty, we should expect it to stand firm.
UN Security Council resolution
With neither the US nor Russia willing to budge, it is highly unlikely that either side will readily make any meaningful conciliatory gestures. Russia’s tabling last month of a face-saving – albeit promptly rejected – UN Security Council resolution calling on both sides to fulfill their treaty obligations serves little more than to proverbially knock the ball back into Washington’s court.
The gesture placed the onus on Washington to reiterate its commitment to the treaty days after it threatened to withdraw, affording Moscow an easy reason to blame the US for the current deadlock. Tellingly, Russia has refused to allow the US to inspect the missile at the heart of the dispute, immediately ruling out a key concession that Washington would hope for in future negotiations.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, full disclosure of the missile would be tantamount to confirming US accusations that Russia is in blatant violation of its arms control obligations. This would likely further deteriorate Russia’s tarnished reputation on the global scene, and could possibly open the door to a fresh round of Western sanctions. Amid recent economic stagnation and lowering approval ratings, this scenario is one the Kremlin cannot afford.
With Moscow unlikely to bow to US pressure, and Washington equally unlikely to alter its demands, it is of the utmost importance to prepare – now rather than later – for a world without the treaty.
Amid severe tensions between Russia and the West, any provocative first steps would multiply the risks of triggering a new arms race between the two adversaries and expand the possible consequences of strategic miscalculation, thus putting the security of millions of European citizens at risk
A first priority should be damage control. Washington and Moscow must prevent the treaty’s collapse from eroding the broader commitment to the non-proliferation architecture. This means reaffirming commitments to existing accords, such as the 2011 New START agreement, which caps the size of their missile arsenal to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads.
Washington could also give reassurances that it would continue upholding its non-INF obligations, even if the INF Treaty collapses, and signal its desire to extend the New START treaty beyond its current 2021 sunset.
Policymakers in both capitals must resist a return to a Cold War mentality. This means resisting the strategic temptation, already expressed by both states, to use the collapse of the INF Treaty as a free-for-all call for deploying land-based missiles across Europe. The US withdrawal need not bring the world back to an era in which nuclear weapons are again part of the strategic calculations of global powers, be they Russia, the US or even China.
Amid severe tensions between Russia and the West, any provocative first steps would multiply the risks of triggering a new arms race between the two adversaries and expand the possible consequences of strategic miscalculation, thus putting the security of millions of European citizens at risk.
The Euromissiles crisis of the 1980s – which saw large-scale, sometimes violent protests that snowballed across Western and Central Europe to denounce the alarming rate of US deployment of Pershing II missiles – serves as a potent reminder of the social unrest that nuclear uncertainty can spark. Any such deployment today could trigger comparable waves of popular discontent and reignite widespread anti-American sentiment.
The INF treaty is a critical pillar of global stability. At a time of fraught relations between Russia and the West, efforts should be made to ensure its collapse does not carry with it the coup de grâce of the global architecture of arms control.
Antoine Got and co-author Danny Anderson hold master’s degrees in international relations and international studies & diplomacy, respectively. The views expressed here are their own.