The End of INF Treaty: Future of Uncontrollable Weapons

The US President Donald Trump announced that the US could withdraw from the INF treaty, whose purpose was to reduce the land-based missiles. The final decision could be taken in next few weeks. The arms control process is under threat. What the end of INF treaty means for global security, how would it affect the relations between the US, NATO and Russia and, finally, could it provoke a real military confrontation, are the topics of interview with Dr. Ulrich Kühn, a Senior Research Associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) and a Nonresident Scholar with the Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The announcement by US President Donald Trump to pull out of the INF treaty will have extremely massive consequences for international security. First of all, it would mean that both states – the US and, possibly, Russia will be free to develop and deploy medium and short-range missiles. The question is: What impact would that have? There are two regions where it would have immediate consequences: one is Europe, and the other is East Asia.

Missiles in the European Theater

When we look at Europe, it means that Europe will be thrown back to the early 1980s, when Soviet INF missiles targeted Western Europe, and it would mean for NATO that it would have to think about whether it should also deploy these kind of weapons in the European theater. The problem is that the appetite of European allies is very limited, so most states like France, Germany, and the Netherlands have no desire to deploy new INF weapons. However, other states, such as Poland or Baltic states that feel directly threatened by Russia, might have more interest to deploy them. 

For overall security situation in Europe the collapse of the treaty will be devastating, because it will also lead to a kind of a rift between the EU member states. Some of them support the US position, and some are against Donald Trump’s decision

Russia: should it stay or quit?

It would be very difficult for Europeans to resist the deployment of the US missiles for two reasons. First, it will depend on the Russian reaction. Russia allegedly already violates of the INF treaty, and NATO believes that Russia has developed and made a limited deployment of middle range cruise missiles. If Russia decides to expand that deployment, particularly in the European part of Russia, then the European NATO allies will feel more threatened by Russia. Then, of course, the debate will be whether they should do anything about it, which evidently means an agreement to deploy those weapons in response. If Russia officially stays in the treaty, and we do not see a massive build-up of INF weapons on Russian territory, the situation will be different. One could expect that only the states that historically feel more threatened by Russia, such as Poland, perhaps Romania, but also three Baltic states, would have to decide, whether they would station these US missiles on their territory, whether they want to have NATO consensus on that, or whether they would strive for a bilateral agreements between the US and those states. That would have a very negative impact on solidarity within the NATO alliance.

China is the Case

If we look at East Asia, the US decision is actually linked to China as a rising power, since it has no obligations within the INF treaty. Here the question would be, “Where the US can deploy such weapons?” There is no great desire in South Korea, the discussion might be a bit different when we look at Japan, because Abe’s government is more interested in INF weapons. If Japan would turn down the US request also, so the US could only station those missiles at the small island of Guam, which would make it an ideal first-strike target in a conflict with China.

Considering the possible extension of the INF treaty, since Donald Trump suggested to include China, Beijing is hardly interested in such an arrangement. For China, this is exactly the proper range of missiles (500-5,500 km) it relies on. China has such missiles, it needs them for its security, and China would not simply give up those systems only because the US demands it. The US will have to think what could it offer to China, but now we do not see anything useful.

The overall effect on global arms control will be even more devastating, because without the INF treaty, the START treaty (bilateral agreement on strategic nuclear forces between the US and Russia) will probably also collapse. However, the collapse of the INF regime can hardly lead to immediate military confrontation between NATO and Russia, but it increases the risk of misperceptions and misunderstandings between the two sides. 

What are arms agreements for? They provide the sides with more confidence building measures and with transparency to check what are the capabilities of each side. Thus, it provides a certain level of confidence, and that level will disappear

So in the current situation, when tensions are running high between NATO and Russia, a little misunderstanding or an accident could then lead to an escalation. And the less agreements we have in the field of arms control, the higher are the risks that some unintended events will ultimately lead to confrontations.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.