Two weeks ago, the Trump administration announced that it intends to suspend its commitment to the INF Treaty and exercise Article XV of the Treaty. In the article below, I reflect on the significance of the treaty and what its suspension might mean for U.S. nuclear policy moving forward.
What was the significance of the treaty?
After almost a decade of stuttering negotiations between the United States and the USSR, the INF Treaty—completed in 1987—was a significant arms control achievement. The Treaty provided a pathway toward the elimination of medium-range nuclear weapons—GLCMs and GLBMs—designed to travel between 1000km and 5500km and was significant in a number of ways. First, it led to the elimination of 2,692 missiles. Second, it provided an on-site inspection mechanism to verify each parties’ treaty commitments and created the Special Verification Commission to address compliance issues. Upon the dissolution of the USSR, the INF Treaty was also multilateralized to include Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Will withdrawal have the Trump administration’s desired effect?
It remains unclear what the Trump administration’s goals for the withdrawal are. However, there are three goals that we should consider: 1) bringing Russia back into compliance, 2) building a symmetrical capability, and 3) multilateralizing arms control to include China.
Using the historical record as a guide, withdrawal does not appear to represent a good option for bringing noncompliant states back into compliance with an agreement. Perhaps as a consequence, a number of European state are at odds with the U.S. decision to withdraw—even as it has become increasingly clear that Moscow has been in breach of its commitments.
The second goal is linked to the administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and a determination to match adversary capabilities. Withdrawal would allow the United States to build symmetrical capabilities to combat Russia’s deployment of intermediate-range forces, though it remains unclear whether European states would allow the re-deployment of intermediate-range forces on their territory.
The third goal relates to regional stability in East Asia. Under the INF Treaty, the United States and Russia were unable to build and deploy intermediate-range forces while China had no such limitations. In Sangers’ reporting, much was made of the perceived “missile gap” in East Asia and how the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty might address it by allowing U.S. deployments in the region. With that said, the same deployment issues noted for the European theater apply in East Asia—and perhaps more so given the geography of the region.
How does the withdrawal effect nuclear policy?
It is important to note that the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence remain unchanged by developments surrounding the INF Treaty.
There are, however, a number of pathways through which this decision has an impact on future arms control agreements. As a country reneges on its agreements, one might argue that it makes future agreements—with both adversaries and allies—more difficult to reach. Given their vulnerability to Russian intermediate-range forces, European allies would also have likely preferred a mechanism that brought Russia back into compliance within the INF Treaty architecture rather than the abandonment of the framework altogether—particularly given the uncertainty concerning the administration’s support for NATO.
It is also worth noting that the collapse of the INF Treaty occurs against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the extension of New START, which is due to expire in early 2021. At the same time, the perceived deterioration of the arms control architecture potentially makes addressing proponents of the Ban Treaty and the NPT RevCon in 2020more difficult.
Are there any positives to be taken from these developments?
While this is certainly a negative development for proponents of arms control, it does potentially provide an important juncture from which to consider whether there are any lessons learned from the INF regime—particularly related to the sunset of the INF Treaty’s verification mechanism in 2001. While causation is difficult to pin down, the absence of a verification mechanism may have contributed to the slow realization of Russia’s noncompliance with the Treaty as well as contributed to Moscow’s decision to pursue its 9M729 (SSC-8) missile system in the first place. As efforts to multilateralize strategic arms control and to regulate emerging technologies continue, parsing these lessons is essential.