The Road to Nuclear Arms is Paved with Good Intentions: The INF Treaty Preservation Act of 2017

Modernization and expansion of the INF treaty would not only address Russia’s perceived threats, but also provide security assurances to U.S. allies, preserve an important signaling mechanism, and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

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Since its entry into force in 1988, the Russian Federation and the United States have accused each other of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty(INF Treaty), a bilateral agreement committing the signatories to eliminate shorter- and intermediate-range missiles and launchers.  These accusations have prompted a debate on the treaty’s future. In effect, the United States has three options – to withdraw from, to preserve, or to modernize the treaty. On February 16, 2017, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced Senate Bill S.430, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty Preservation Act of 2017, initially signaling a U.S. effort to preserve the treaty. Unfortunately, actions proposed in S.430, including calls for developing a dual-capable road-mobile ground-launched weapons system and seeking additional defense assets, may further jeopardize the treaty’s future. Instead of preservation, efforts should be made to modernize the INF Treaty. A modernized treaty could include other states, provide additional assurances to U.S. allies, preserve an important signaling mechanism, and assure signatories are moving in good faith towards disarmament.

National Security and Bringing Russia into Compliance: S.430 Action Plan

In February, treaty violation accusations came to a head when Russia reportedly deployed treaty-violating cruise missiles. This prompted U.S. action and the introduction of S.430. The bill states that a material INF Treaty breach by Russia gives the United States the right to suspend the treaty in whole or in part as it is not in the United States’ national interest to be prohibited from developing weapons systems banned under the INF Treaty while Russia develops and deploys them.

If Russia were to be in noncompliance, the bill declares that the United States should take actions that would include establishing a program for developing a dual-capable road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system and seeking additional missile defense assets in the European theater. Further, S.430 calls for reporting, including “a determination whether the Russian Federation has flight tested, produced, or possesses a system that is inconsistent with the INF Treaty” as well as on the “number and location of AEGIS Ashore sites with anti-air warfare capability.” (More potential actions can be found in the bill text.)

Straining Already Tense US-Russian Relations: S.430 Shortcomings

S.430’s shortcomings have serious implications in the security environment and could lead to the treaty’s demise. Major shortcomings include developing dual-capable road-mobile ground-launched weapons systems and moves to increase security and defense that threaten Russia’s national security.  United States development of such weapons systems would not only be in violation of the INF Treaty but would simultaneously exacerbate Russia’s insecurity. According to S.430, the treaty’s provisions do not apply to the United States as long as Russia is found in violation. However, Russia has denied any noncompliance accusations and may view subsequent weapons development as a U.S. violation, placing any treaty dissolution blame on the United States.

Other actions detailed in S.430 will likely increase tensions between Russia and the United States, such as calls for “aggressively seeking additional missile defense assets in the European theater to protect United States and NATO forces.” Russia already perceives NATO’s proximity to Russian borders as threatening; beefing up defense may be interpreted as hostile. S.430’s authorization of funds to facilitate missile system transfers to allied countries could also increase Russian insecurity.

Modernizing the INF Treaty

Russia perceives itself as surrounded by threats – NATO on the west and China, with its ever-increasing missile capability, on the east. If Russia believes banned missiles deter that threat, then the original INF Treaty is no longer worth preserving for Russia or the United States. Modernization and expansion of the treaty would not only address Russia’s perceived threats, but also provide security assurances to U.S. allies, preserve an important signaling mechanism, and strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

First, expanding the treaty to include other states, particularly China and NATO states, may bring Russia back into compliance by addressing its perceived security threats on its borders. Second, United States-Russia relations are likely to worsen, especially in regards to issues in Syria and Iran. An agreed upon modernized treaty will help assure allies during periods of increased tensions by strengthening arms control commitments.

Third, only two bilateral nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the United States are currently in force – the INF Treaty and New START. Russian withdrawal from either may signal intentions to pursue strategic offensive weapons, forcing the United States to determine appropriate countermeasures. This signaling mechanism is no longer available if the United States is seen as the cause for treaty dissolution as Russia could wait out New START’s short ten-year duration. Therefore, Russian participation in any treaty preservation, modernization, or renegotiation is key, and is something S.430 cannot address.

Finally, modernization, expansion, and reaffirmation of INF Treaty commitments would illustrate movement in good faith towards disarmament, positively impacting discussions surrounding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and on the broader nonproliferation regime, where disarmament language features prominently.

The status of the INF Treaty Preservation Act of 2017 is available here. At the time of writing, S.430 has been read twice in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

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