To INF or not to INF? How unilateral withdrawal helps Moscow get away with treaty violations

American withdrawal from the cold war era INF Treaty would do nothing to strengthen security in the US or Europe, and would allow Moscow to get away with repeated violations

Signed in 1987 by Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty bans the development, testing, and deployment of all land-based missiles with a range of between 500km and 5,500km. The United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia) have remained the only official parties to the agreement, while France, the United Kingdom, and Germany decided to abide by its terms, transparently scrapping all such weapons systems. Yet this important treaty now seems likely to unravel. In the past week, US National Security Advisor John Bolton has spent several days in Moscow, where he apparently met Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a planned US withdrawal from the arrangement.

Western leaders’ original rationale for supporting the INF Treaty was simple: they wanted to counter Soviet intermediate-range missiles (above all, the RSD-10 Pioneer, known in the West as the SS-20) because these powerful nuclear-capable systems could wipe out any European NATO state without posing a threat to the US mainland. European and American leaders feared that, in a crisis, the Soviets would use this capability to divide NATO, selectively coercing an individual European state while deterring leaders in Washington from throwing their weight behind their ally. Reagan and his contemporaries found this threat compelling even at a time when NATO was much more cohesive than it is today, and Moscow had far less capacity to influence Western domestic politics.

The Soviet Union signed the treaty out of fear of the Americans’ very advanced and precise (for the time) Pershing II missile. Leaders in Moscow thought that the weapon could pre-emptively wipe out the key Soviet political and military command centres and facilities, deciding the outcome of a war between the superpowers within a few minutes. It later emerged that Soviet military intelligence had almost hysterically overestimated the Pershing II’s capabilities (much as Russian intelligence overestimates US missile-defence systems today). After realising this mistake, Russian military planners quickly became unhappy with the INF Treaty.

The declared reasoning behind the Trump administration’s decision is that China, which is not bound by the agreement, has built weapons to outmanoeuvre the US in the Pacific. In military terms, this argument makes no sense.

Championing a revanchist and revisionist ideology, Putin’s regime has progressively lost interest in complying with the agreement – seeing it as, like the Charter of Paris and the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, a symbol of Russian weakness and decline. In the 2010s, Russia began to circumvent the INF Treaty, placing vertical-launch systems capable of firing Kalibr-NK dual-use cruise missiles – which have a range of 2,500km – on naval corvettes and other gunboats. Deployed in the Caspian and Baltic seas, these vessels function almost like land-based systems in that they can threaten much of Europe while operating under the protection of air defences on Russian territory. They can also move deep into Russia’s interior, using inland waterways to evade detection.

American suspicions that Russia has outright violated the INF Treaty are well founded. Russia has tested a two-stage, probably intermediate-range ballistic missile since 2011. Furthermore, it started to test a ground-launched cruise missile in 2014, attaching launch tubes for Kalibr-KN cruise missiles to Iskander missile launchers. The system, called the Iskander-K, was officially introduced in 2017 and featured in Russia’s Vostok 2018 exercise. Moscow claims that the land-based version can only launch cruise missiles with a range of up to 500km. But it has not indicated whether and how this launch mechanism differs from a seemingly identical system that can launch such missiles with a range of up to 2,500km. The INF Treaty’s inspection regime to verify treaty compliance was more rigorous than that of most other arms-control arrangements but, unfortunately, it expired in 2001. Although Western arms-control experts and diplomats at various levels have since advocated re-establishing the regime, Russian officials show no interest in mutual verification – most likely because international inspections would have easily proven wrong their allegations that US missile-defence sites house cruise missiles. Without the US making the case for inspections publicly and rallying allies around it, both sides’ allegations will remain unverified and Moscow will stay in control of the narrative on arms-control treaty violations.

However, now the US government seems poised to abandon the INF Treaty without any attempt to rally its allies behind its position, re-establish inspections, or link Russia’s INF Treaty compliance with American willingness to extend New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This is despite the fact that Putin expressed interest in extending New Start at meeting with Trump in Helsinki in July this year, thereby providing Washington with a pressure point.

The declared reasoning behind the Trump administration’s decision is that China, which is not bound by the agreement, has built a formidable arsenal of intermediate-range weapons to outmanoeuvre the US in the Pacific – meaning that the American military must field an equal capability. In military terms, this argument makes no sense. The US is not allowed to base nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. Nor does it have an agreement to base them in South Korea – and, given Seoul’s current policy of détente with Pyongyang, this is unlikely to change. The few American bases in the Pacific are located on very small land masses (such as Guam) that are likely to be the first targets of any Chinese missile attack. To hedge against such a strike, America would have to scatter its nuclear missiles across aircraft and ships deployed in the Pacific (where the US Navy remains the pre-eminent force, for now). Yet developing and deploying air- and sea-launched intermediate-range missiles is allowed under the INF Treaty.

As a result, the new US approach will likely help Moscow get away with violating the agreement. Russia has two intermediate-range systems that are either ready for deployment or in a late stage of development, while the US it at least a decade away from matching this capability. It is hard to miss that Trump and Bolton are granting Russia a military advantage. In times of war, the US would find it easier to track and counter Russian air- and sea-based missiles than those based on vehicles able to move freely across Russia’s vast territory.

In comparison with the cold war era, Europe is in a relatively weak position to deal with another missile crisis

Trump and Bolton look set to help Putin diplomatically as well. Instead of focusing on Russian non-compliance, discussions on the INF Treaty in Europe will centre on US withdrawal from a treaty Europeans perceive as essential to their security. Putinversteher (Putin apologists) across the political spectrum will have no difficulty depicting the US as dangerous and irrational. The Russian president’s suggestion last week that the Kremlin has a no-first-use nuclear policy fits with this messaging: Russia is a rational and peace-loving country that is merely concerned about an erratic White House. This is a lie, of course – but it a popular one.

In comparison with the cold war era, Europe is in a relatively weak position to deal with another missile crisis. Most European decision-makers are entirely unfamiliar with nuclear deterrence. Pacifism and anti-Americanism are rising sharply in Germany. Meanwhile, the progress of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project in the Baltic Sea heightens Warsaw’s desire to defy Berlin. If Poland offers to host US ground-based intermediate-range missiles (in line with its proposals on “Fort Trump”), German domestic politics could fall into disarray. Given that stirring discontent between NATO allies is habitual for the Kremlin, one can bet that a mixture of Russian threats, overtures, and disinformation would deepen such rifts.

Therefore, if it does withdraw from the INF Treaty, the Trump administration will once again demonstrate its disdain for diplomacy, established alliances, and the traditional Republican conservativism of Reagan, as well as its lust for disruption. But it will do nothing to strengthen security in America or Europe. Should the administration decide not to immediately withdraw, Europeans would be well advised to back any forceful US message and threat of consequences for Russia’s continued non-compliance and lack of transparency.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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