If the U.S. walks away from the 1987 INF treaty, which bans intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear weapons, as President Donald Trump intends, a cornerstone of the existing arms control system will be removed. The chances of being replaced with a better, multilateral agreement involving China and other nuclear powers are very slim.
In a nutshell
- Besides Russia’s questionable compliance, the INF treaty has become problematic for the United States
- If released from INF restrictions, the U.S. strategic position vs. Russia and China would be immediately strengthened
- Russia, for its part, stands to gain in Europe and the Far East
- Europe would be the biggest loser, as its ability to deter Russia would diminish
- All the interested powers stand to lose if an uncontrolled arms race is unleashed
According to Washington, Russia has violated the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Concluded in the twilight of the Cold War by leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, the pact called for mutual elimination of land-based, intermediate- and shorter-range (from 500 to 5,500 kilometers) missiles. The pact led to the destruction of some 2,700 missiles by 1991. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia assumed the USSR’s treaty obligations.
The 1987 agreement has been a cornerstone of the nuclear arms reduction system and contributed very significantly to the easing of East-West rivalry, particularly in Europe. In recent years, the U.S. has systematically informed its allies in NATO of the INF treaty compliance issues and warned Russia itself, with little effect.
The European allies did not display a significant inclination to lean on Russia about the INF. Moscow, for its part, responded to the U.S. charges with its own accusations. It claimed that the construction in Central Europe of elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield enabled the Americans to deploy with relative ease, if they so decided, the banned intermediate-range missiles in bases in Romania and Poland – a few short minutes of missile flight from Moscow.
A hybrid, Cold-War-style rivalry has set in and is now becoming the driver of a new nuclear arms race.
On top of Russia’s questionable compliance, the INF treaty has become problematic for the U.S. in the context of increasing strategic challenges in the Far East. China is not restricted by it and fields an arsenal of medium-range missiles that the U.S. currently cannot match.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s October 20, 2018 announcement that his administration was “going to terminate” the INF treaty and “pull out” of it only highlighted the increasingly tense nature of U.S.-Russian relations. On December 4, NATO foreign ministers backed the U.S. move, declaring: “Allies have concluded that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security. We stronglysupport the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave Russia two months to return to full compliance with the treaty. If the Kremlin failed to do so, Mr. Pompeo warned, the U.S. would enter the six-month-long procedure of abrogating the pact.
A renewed, hybrid Cold-War-style rivalry has set in and is now becoming the driver of a new nuclear arms race. This contest will have strategic consequences not only for these two powers but also for other global players, especially China and Europe.
The consequences of terminating the treaty are quite clear for the U.S. and China. Released from INF restrictions, the U.S. strategic position versus China will be immediately strengthened. The Asian power has been happily developing all aspects of its strategic arsenal in the Western Pacific and acquired an ability to threaten U.S. naval vessels and bases throughout the region with supersonic missiles from its own shores. The Americans, on the other hand, can only rely on the sea- and air-based missile systems in the theater.
This asymmetry is becoming particularly important as China rises to regional hegemony in Southeast Asia and aspires to the role of the U.S.’s main global rival. There is already much talk about the risk of the two powers falling into the so-called “Thucydides trap.” (Thucydides was a Greek historian who described how Sparta’s fear of Athens’ rise prompted it to attack the contender. The war proved calamitous to both sides.)
The U.S. feels it must find a way to redress the changing balance of power in the Pacific and Asian regions. This is probably the most important strategic premise behind its (probable) decision to pull out of the INF Treaty. Washington’s aim may be either to find a way to even out nuclear capacities in the Western Pacific, or – alternatively – to induce China to enter a new INF-type treaty, perhaps involving North Korea and Iran as well. Under each scenario, China’s regional position would be weakened, so it is hardly surprising that Beijing has been among the loudest critics of the U.S. administration’s move.
The INF treaty gave Russia a strategic advantage over NATO in Europe. Under its provisions, the Western allies do not possess land-based nuclear missiles capable of reaching Russia from European territory. The U.S.has only a limited number of vintage nuclear bombs, deployed in its bases in Europe.
The Russians claim that range of the Novator missile is under 500 kilometers, but Washington contests it.
The treaty does not ban research and development of new missiles as long as they are not flight-tested. In 2014, according to the U.S., Russia conducted tests of a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile and began deploying it in 2017. The Russians claim that range of the Novator 9M729 missile is under 500 kilometers, but Washington contests it.
The U.S. is treating this compliance issue seriously. Such nuclear-warhead-carrying cruise missiles are designed to put at risk targets in Europe and Asia. Their deployment would reduce China’s military edge in the Far East and create an advantage, temporary at least, for Russia over NATO in Europe.
If, on the other hand, the U.S. left the treaty and deployed its short-to-medium-range missiles in Europe, such as cruise missiles, it would pose a very substantial challenge to Russia. The new American missiles could reach the strategic center of Russia while the similar Russian systems would not threaten U.S. territory. This asymmetry constitutes a tough strategic nut to crack. In 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) grasped the problem and led the Russian side to sign the treaty that eliminated this entire destabilizing class of weapons. He accepted that under the INF deal, Russia would need to destroy more than twice as many of its missiles (1,846) as the U.S. (846).
By walking away from the treaty, Washington runs the risk of expanding Russia’s strategic toolbox in Europe’s neo-cold war. The issue is dividing already NATO member states, weakening the alliance’s cohesion and sapping its strength. The situation would become even more strategically attractive for Moscow if the U.S. ended up not deploying new missiles in Europe – either because some allies objected to it or because Washington didn’t want to do so.
In such a case, Russia would be spared a threat to its security while NATO would effectively break up into two parts with different strategic risk profiles: the U.S. out of reach of Russia’s new nuclear missiles, and Europe within their range. Such diversity would leave NATO exposed to constant Russian blackmail. The December statement of NATO foreign ministers lessens, however, the probability of this scenario.
There is, however, one huge risk for Russia lurking in this scenario. Termination of the INF treaty may put at risk related agreements, namely on the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons (New START). This could suck the two sides into a new arms race spiral. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War (1947-1991) and broke up as a state-empire in large part because it could not withstand the cost of the arms race with the U.S., especially President Ronald Reagan’s (1981-1989) Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) program. Russia is not likely to fare better in a similar confrontation with the West today.
Russia’s contravention of the INF treaty poses an additional threat to Europe. The existing imbalance in tactical nuclear weapons (Russia has about 1,800 tactical nuclear warheads, while the U.S. arsenal in Europe amounts to some 200) is further compounded by the potential reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles to the theater. It is not in the interest of Europe to allow this additional Russian advantage to materialize fully. The European countries, however, have not been able to stop this process under the auspices of the INF treaty. The situation has become even more dangerous as the treaty unravels.
If the Russians make serious, official moves to deploy intermediate-range missiles aimed at targets in Europe, NATO will face an ugly choice. It could respond in kind and deploy additional U.S. missiles in Europe (a new class of land-based missile, currently under development in the U.S., or sea- and airborne missile systems). NATO members could also decide to keep U.S. medium-range weapons out of Europe and accept a serious deterioration of their security position.
That would be a repetition of the situation in the early 1980s, before the conclusion of the INF Treaty. At that time, Europe was the scene of fierce public protests against the stationing of American medium-range nuclear missiles (the Pershing and cruise systems). The protests were accompanied – and some would argue, orchestrated – by Soviet agitation not much different from today’s anti-Western and pro-Russian propaganda. A generation ago, the protests contributed to the negotiation and signing of the INF Treaty. This time around, the dilemma would be inverted – whether to install U.S. missiles in Europe in response to the Russian deployment (assuming, of course, that the Americans would be interested in such a move in Europe).
It is difficult to imagine Europeans taking to the streets en masse to demand U.S. nuclear-tipped missiles be stationed on their soil. Vigorous protests against the idea, on the other hand, seem nearly assured. Western European governments would find such a project almost impossible politically, even if the leaders viewed the deployment as needed.
To summarize: Under every logical scenario, Europe faces a deterioration of its security position if, or when, the INF treaty comes to an end.
Two base scenarios emerge looking forward: a renegotiation of the INF treaty (with bilateral or multilateral scope) and an escalation scenario with symmetrical or asymmetric subscripts.
Renegotiation of the INF treaty cannot be ruled out. The Reagan-Gorbachev deal could be changed to remove the risks and threats it presently poses to the interested parties. This could be a two-sided, or a broadened, multinational negotiation. In the first variant, the talks could focus on tightening the treaty’s provisions, e.g., establishing better criteria for distinguishing between land and sea missiles or verifying compliance, especially such critical technical aspects as a missile’s range.
This approach would, however, do little to alleviate the uncomfortable position of both the U.S. and Russia vis-a-vis China and other states that possess nuclear warheads and missile-delivery capabilities (in varying stages). The present signatories of the INF treaty may thus be interested in bringing to the table the Chinese and, for example, North Korea and Iran, and perhaps India and Pakistan as well.
Such a multilateral approach would be highly desirable, but unfortunately, it is not highly likely to materialize. Both U.S. and European strategists are apt to consider this the best option available. The Trump administration may have put the INF issue on the knife’s edge to push for such a renegotiation. For Russia, too, this could be a way of avoiding the unpleasant prospect of having to face U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Europe someday. Additionally, including China in the talks could lead to improving Russia’s security on its East flank.
For China and the lesser nuclear players, however, accessing a broadened INF pact would likely mean new restrictions and a narrowing of their strategic options. Persuading these states to join the negotiations could prove extremely difficult.
Escalation of threats. An abandonment of the INF treaty without its renegotiation, possibly combined with pullout from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START, planned to remain in force until 2021), could trigger an escalation of the nuclear arms race and even more tension in the relations among the three leading nuclear powers – the U.S., Russia and China.
If in such a confrontation with Russia and China, the West manages to maintain its political and strategic unity, we would have a scenario of neo-cold war symmetrical escalation – the actions of one party would be met with a proportional response from the other. Under such a simple script, we would witness an accelerated deployment by Russia of its new intermediate-range missile systems, an increase in the number of such weapons in possession of the People’s Liberation Army, and the construction and operational deployment of new U.S. rockets in Europe and the Western Pacific.
For Europe, this would mean a restoration of the Cold-War-era strategic conditions of the 1980s, with an increased risk of nuclear war due to the dangerously short time to detect and confirm a nuclear attack. For Asia, it would create neo-cold war conditions similar to those in Europe, with a cascading arms race among the local powers. Accelerated development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems by China would provoke a response in India and Pakistan.
The most important outcome of this scenario concerns the U.S. The Americans would be able to check Russia and China with their medium- and intermediate-range missiles, while remaining out of the reach of similar weapons from those two countries.
NATO ministers’ December statement in support of the U.S. position on the compliance issue does not guarantee a similar consensus on the next problem: how does the alliance react to Russia’s INF treaty violation. There is a considerable likelihood of a split, putting the European members at odds with the U.S. This would lead to an asymmetric escalation, in which Europe does not adequately respond to steps taken by Russia. In the end, NATO would be seriously undermined by inter-Atlantic quarrels and a vast difference in the security risks faced by the U.S. and Europe.
Under this scenario, Russia would gain versus NATO and China. The U.S. improves its security position against China but loses indirectly, as a result of NATO’s weakening. For its part, China loses to Russia and the U.S. But Europe comes out as the most disadvantaged.
As Cold War-like conditions deepened, Europe’s nuclear deterrent against Russia would wither. At the same time, the risk of war would increase as Moscow gains a freer hand to expand its nuclear arsenal and pursue ever more aggressive policies. Under its doctrine of "nuclear de-escalation," Russia can resort to low-yield nuclear strikes to make up for the numerical and technical weaknesses of its conventional forces. (More on this doctrine is here).
New arms race
A new arms race would be the most tangible result of both escalation scenarios described above. The U.S., Russia and China inevitably would find themselves in a race to develop new missiles and nuclear weapons. That would be particularly risky for Russia, as economically it is the weakest in the three. The race would probably include strategic weapons, too – the most expensive proposition of all.
The U.S. and China have the economic potential to sustain such a race for an extended period, giving time for strategic reflection. Russia has no such comfort. Would it draw lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union in a similar situation in the 1980s? What would its conclusions be? The Kremlin could decide to withdraw from the contest at an earlier stage than Mr. Gorbachev, to avoid economic meltdown. Or, finding itself cornered and weakening, perhaps it might opt for a preemptive war. These scenarios contain too many unknowns, with consequences too enormous, to be ignored. They could get us into a very dangerous spot.
It appears that these risks will not be averted by renegotiating the INF treaty in an extended, multilateral format. Much more likely, the treaty will be abandoned with dire consequences: a neo-cold war escalation of missile and nuclear threats, and an arms race between the globe’s three biggest powers.