The death of the INF treaty is but a last piece in the story of how the half-century effort to control nuclear weapons and stabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship perished. When the INF treaty disappears, as key members of the Trump Administration are keen to see, the way that it ends will almost certainly spell the end to U.S.-Russian strategic arms control.
From the start of the original SALT negotiations in 1969 to our day, in a halting and often tortuous process, the two countries first agreed to puts limits on the number of ballistic missile launchers possessed by each and to call off an offense-defense race by limiting anti-ballistic missile defense systems. In subsequent SALT and START agreements they gradually reduced launchers and warheads (in the latter case from nearly 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 today), and in 1987 in the INF treaty they eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. During the Soviet Union’s last months, by reciprocal executive agreements, they pledged to reduce substantially and in some cases to eliminate entirely tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons. At the same time, under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), the two countries linked efforts to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction throughout the territories of the former Soviet Union.
In what turned out to be the last step forward, the New START agreement, signed in 2010, reduced each side’s deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 and deployed and non-deployed launchers to 800. There would henceforth be no further arms control agreements nor even any negotiations over what might come next.
In the interim, however, the two sides gradually pulled bricks from the edifice that they had painfully constructed over decades. In 2002 the United States withdrew from the ABM agreement, which after a long delay, has in the new U.S.-Russian Cold War again brought the two sides to the brink of a nuclear offense-defense race. That same year Russia withdrew from the recently signed START II agreement that banned multiple-independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on ICBMs, thereby, axing a measure intended to reinforce the principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the foundation for the U.S.-Russian concept of strategic stability. In 2005, the Russian side made plain that it had no interest in further limiting tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, unless the United States withdrew all of its (200) B-61 bombs, and subsequently refused to return to the subject. In 2012 Russia announced that it was pulling the plug on the CTR program, and the anemic effort to find an alternative faltered amidst tensions over the Ukrainian crisis.
Some on the Russian side may welcome this development. The United States will bear the onus for destroying a treaty that they too are only too happy to see vanish. In the case of President Putin and his foreign policy team it may not be that clear cut. Their latest proposals for either an expanded INF agreement that captures the forces of all countries with intermediate-range nuclear weapons or an alternative agreement that presumably allows the Russian GLCM program to go forward are, however, non-starters.
Thus, we stand on the edge of two momentous and potentially tragic developments. The first is the likely end of strategic nuclear arms control in any form. With the Trump Administration in power and a Congress in a fury over Russian actions in many spheres, the chance the United States would agree to renew a New START agreement when it expires in February 2021 is minus zero. Were the Democrats to win the White House in 2020 that could conceivably change, and between now and then a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will present obstacles to some of the most de-stabilizing U.S. weapons plans.
Meanwhile, however, Russia, along with China, will go forward with their own set of de-stabilizing weapons choices. And here is the second and potentially most portentous consequence of what will now likely follow. At a time when the United States and Russia are dismantling the constraints and safeguards that over a half century they labored to create, a new multipolar world, with nine nuclear actors shaping its future, grows more dangerous with each passing year. The technological frontiers being crossed, the cacophony of nuclear doctrines and theories on how nuclear weapons might be used, and the nuclearization of relationships that are already tension-filled throw us back to the 1950s and early 1960s when a nuclear race was unconstrained and ideas on nuclear use were reckless, only this time the context is vastly more complex and the dangers far more numerous and intractable.
Without U.S.-Russian leadership, soon joined by the Chinese, the chance of managing the challenges of this new nuclear age rapidly shrinks to nul. And the chance of U.S.-Russian leadership, when the two countries are deep in a new Cold War, is roughly the same. That, historians will write—if they are around to write it—was the tragedy of our day.