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What the INF Treaty means for the U.S. and Europe

- February 1, 2019

Editor’s note: On Feb. 1, 2019, the Trump administration followed through on the October 2018 announcement of its plan to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters on Feb. 1, accused the Russian government of violating the agreement, and announced that the “treaty terminates” within six months unless Russia destroys its intermediate-range weapons. In light of this news, we have republished James J. Cameron’s analysis from October 2018, which looks at the history and impact of the INF.

In October 2018, President Trump announced the United States plans to withdraw from the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Speaking in Nevada, Trump accused Moscow of “violating” the treaty and said he would reconsider only if both Russia and China limited their forces.

National security adviser John Bolton then went to Moscow  to meet with Russian officials and also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. What does the U.S. move mean? Here are five things to consider:

1. What is the INF Treaty?

The treaty was signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. It prohibited the United States and the Soviet Union from possessing, testing and deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).

Under the treaty, Washington and Moscow destroyed 846 and 1,846 missiles, respectively. Given their relatively limited range, these systems were designed chiefly to fight a theater nuclear war in Europe. Short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns made them hard to detect, so strategists argued that these systems exacerbated crisis instability and increased the chances of accidental nuclear war. European countries therefore considered the destruction of these missiles as highly beneficial to regional security.

Despite its name, the INF Treaty covers all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles — whether their payload is conventional or nuclear. Moscow and Washington are prohibited from deploying these missiles anywhere in the world, not just in Europe. However, the treaty applies only to ground-launched systems. Both sides are free to deploy air- and sea-launched missiles within the 500-to-5,500-kilometer range.

2. Has Russia violated the treaty? 

The State Department first declared Moscow had violated the treaty in July 2014. U.S. officials have since identified the 9M729 cruise missile as their main concern. NATO designated the new Russian cruise missile as the SSC-8. The United States has not released an assessment, but the missile is rumored to have a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers (about 1,250 miles).

In February 2017, U.S. officials said they believed Russia had deployed the system operationally. The United States has pursued an increasingly robust policy, including sanctions, to pressure Moscow back into compliance with the treaty.

Moscow has denied the treaty violation, demanded to see the evidence and responded with its own list of alleged U.S. infractions. However, it has provided no substantive rebuttal of U.S. accusations.

The United States has not published any supporting intelligence, so it is impossible to fully verify its claims. However, as NATO allies have learned more, their position has become more closely aligned with Washington’s. At their summit in July, NATO leaders stated that Russian violation is “the most plausible assessment” of the available evidence.

3. Why did Trump mention China? 

China is not bound by the INF Treaty and has deployed intermediate-range missiles in significant numbers. As analysts have noted, Harry Harris, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former head of the U.S. Pacific Command, has estimated that intermediate-range systems make up “approximately 95 percent” of the People’s Liberation Army missile force.

Some observers have argued that the INF Treaty is anachronistically Eurocentric, failing to take into account the U.S.-Chinese military balance, which is becoming increasingly central to Washington’s strategic calculations. It would be far cheaper for the United States to deploy ground-based systems in Asia rather than to position them on small and expensive sea- and air-based platforms. Trump may have been hinting at such reasoning in his public comments.

However, Washington has few bases in the Pacific where it could place a ground-launched missile within range of China without consent from allies. It is an open question whether governments such as Japan, South Korea or Australia would be willing to host such systems.

4. What are the military implications of withdrawal?

It is unclear what INF-prohibited systems the United States could deploy to Europe or Asia in the near term. The U.S. military has not developed any land-based missiles within the prohibited ranges for decades and has only just started funding a new ground-launched cruise missile to match the 9M729.

Moscow is in a very different position and could rapidly expand deployment. The number of operational 9M729 missiles has been quite limited, but released from its official obligations under the treaty, Moscow could deploy more units rapidly.

Russia could also effectively reclassify the RS-26 Rubezh, an experimental system that has been tested just above the INF Treaty’s 5,500-kilometer limit. To avoid violating the INF, Russian officials previously described the RS-26 as an intercontinental ballistic missile. However, it could form the basis for a missile of a slightly shorter range if Moscow wished to boost its INF forces — without counting it under the U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, governing longer-range systems.

5. What are the diplomatic implications of withdrawal?

Withdrawal is likely to be controversial with U.S. allies in NATO, further splitting the alliance at a difficult time for transatlantic relations. Many Western European NATO states favor retaining the INF, in conjunction with previous U.S. policy designed to push Moscow back into compliance. This raises concerns that divisions within NATO may worsen when the United States officially withdraws from the INF.

There is little desire for a new arms race in Europe, and few NATO countries are likely to want to host any new U.S. systems. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas described Trump’s announcement as “regrettable” and has urged Moscow to resolve its compliance issues. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson declared Britain stands with the United States but also hopes the treaty will “continue.” Central and Eastern European states may align more closely with Trump’s stance, though their positions are unclear.

Withdrawal will probably not lead to a new INF deal. Given its heavy investment in intermediate-range systems, China will not take up Trump’s offer of talks with the United States and Russia. Moscow seems to be in no mood for negotiations.

Trump’s move is also likely to undermine the 2010 New START treaty governing U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear systems. The INF Treaty’s demise will undercut New START by reopening questions on the relationship between intermediate and strategic systems that have been resolved for 30 years by the elimination of ground-based, intermediate-range missiles.

James J. Cameron is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Follow @cameronjjj.