The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty is on its deathbed. Some celebrate its increasingly likely demise, dismissing the decades-old treaty as antiquated and irrelevant to today’s realities. However, the mode of the INF treaty’s death bodes ill for the future of arms control, U.S.-Russian relations, and global security.
The treaty is out of date and somewhat militarily pointless. Signed by the United States and USSR in 1987, it prevents its signatories and their successors (Russia, the United States, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan) from flight-testing, producing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles between the ranges of 500 and 5500 kilometers. Despite its name, the treaty applies to both nuclear and conventional systems.
It is pointless because there are no targets that require a ground-launched ballistic or cruise missile of that range. Although they may present more complications, including increased expense, air- and sea-launched missiles, allowed by the treaty, can do the job just fine. Meanwhile other states, most notably China, have built and deployed weapons that the countries bound by the treaty may not.
Despite these strong arguments that the treaty should be put out of everyone’s misery, its demise will be dangerous, with substantial collateral damage. The reasons are tied to both the overall relationship between Moscow and Washington and to the post-Cold War experience with arms control as a whole.
Starting around 2013, the United States raised concerns that Russia was developing, and, as of 2017, deploying, a ground-based system in violation of INF. Russia denied this and accused the United States of violating the treaty, most notably because its Aegis Ashore missile defense system could, potentially, be converted to launch offensive missiles. The impasse, while frustrating, left room for discussion and negotiation. However, in December of 2018, the United States announced that it would be withdrawing from INF unless Russia returned to full compliance within 60 days.
The INF treaty is part of the Cold War’s broader arms control legacy of, in addition to INF, limitations on strategic forces, missile defenses, and conventional capabilities in Europe. This framework has been fraying for years. Constraints on missile defenses went away in 2002, when the United States abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In 2007, Russia suspended its implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Strategic arms control is the one success story, with a New START Treaty signed in 2010. However, the Trump administration has rebuffed Russian overtures to extend the treaty past 2021, when it will otherwise expire.
This is happening at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are in a downward spiral of distrust and recrimination, driven by a combination of years of Russian frustration with US policy and more recent American anger at Russian actions in Ukraine and evidence of Russian efforts to interfere with America’s 2016 presidential election, among a wealth of other disagreements.
All of this means that if INF dies, arms control may well die with it. Why would any state sign future treaties with either Russia or the United States when the one violates agreements and the other withdraws from them when they become inconvenient? Moreover, if INF dies, Russian and US antipathy will further escalate as the two countries deploy systems that the other, and allied countries, perceive as threatening, whatever their actual impact on the military balance.
The best hope for stability is to save INF for now, so that it can be renegotiated later, whether that results in an agreement to call it off or a bilateral or multilateral arrangement more in keeping with today’s security requirements. Saving INF would demonstrate that arms control is valued and open the door to strategic agreements that encompass new technologies and a much-needed relook at conventional limits in Europe. The Trump administration is unlikely to take the lead here. But Russia could call America’s bluff and take steps to eliminate the offending system. While the United States has called for full compliance by February, any Russian moves in that direction would create pressure from Europe and within the US to restart dialogue. If that fails, Russia could reverse course.
I do not expect this to happen. I expect INF to die. Future efforts to save arms control will likely take the form of arguments for mutual commitments not to deploy ground-based launchers for intermediate range missiles in Europe. Those, too, are likely to fail, leaving us to wait until mutual terror drives everyone back to the negotiating table.