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Would US quitting the INF treaty rekindle a big-power arms race?

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has pulled the United States from a number of agreements he says are bad deals. But withdrawing from the INF – an arms control treaty with another nuclear power – would mark a first.

Press Service of the Russian Security Council/AP
US National Security Adviser John Bolton, left, and Russian Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev talk prior to their official talks in Moscow, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. The two met to discuss a broad range of issues including arms control agreements, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and the fight against terrorism.

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President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banning land-based medium-range missiles in 1987. At the time, the INF was seen as a key factor in reducing cold war tensions, slowing a destabilizing arms race, and solidifying transatlantic security relations. Arms control experts say Russia has been violating the treaty for years, and over the weekend President Trump said he would withdraw from what he considers another bad deal. Administration officials say leaving the treaty will free up the US to counter Russia in Europe and China in the South China Sea. But for many arms control experts, the US move portends something else: an unintentional return to the big-power arms race of the cold war. For Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association in Washington, the overriding concern is that jettisoning the INF will turn out to be a harbinger of White House intentions to do away with the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. “If that happens, then we’re talking an unconstrained international arms race that would leave America and its allies and everybody else less secure,” he says.

An administration with little love for treaties and the limits they place on the exercise of American power is about to scrap another one – this time the Reagan-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

President Trump told a campaign rally over the weekend that he intends to pull the United States out of what is known simply as the INF treaty, and this week he has dispatched his national security adviser, John Bolton, to Moscow to inform Russian President Vladimir Putin of the US decision.

Spurred on by Mr. Bolton – the preeminent hawk in the White House and a longtime critic of the treaty signed with Russia in 1987 – Trump says he’ll withdraw from what he considers another bad international deal for the US, one he and arms control experts agree Russia has been violating for years.

“We’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and do weapons and we’re not allowed to,” Trump said in Nevada Saturday.

Leaving the treaty will free up the US to counter Russia’s treaty-violating arms deployments aimed at Europe – and to respond to a Chinese buildup of intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the South China Sea, administration officials say.

But for many arms control experts, the US move portends something else: a return to the big-power arms race of the cold war years and to the diplomatic tensions, particularly in Europe, that deeply marked that era.

“Donald Trump came into office with a disdain for international institutions and multilateral cooperation, and now those impulses are being encouraged by John Bolton in the area of arms control,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Eyes on New START

The overriding concern Mr. Kimball sees is that jettisoning the INF treaty will turn out to be a harbinger of White House intentions orchestrated by Bolton to do away with the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. Without renewal, that treaty would expire in 2021.

“If that happens, then we’re talking an unconstrained international arms race that would leave America and its allies and everybody else less secure,” says Kimball. “I don’t think that’s necessarily what Donald Trump wants, but he’s blundering into that direction with the path he’s taking with withdrawal from INF.”

When President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF treaty, which banned land-based medium-range missiles (with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers), it was seen as a key factor in reducing cold war tensions, slowing a destabilizing arms race, and solidifying transatlantic security relations.

Today some arms control experts say that a treaty that was once useful has been rendered a fiction by Russian violations through deployment of prohibited tactical nuclear weapons – intended, the US contends, to intimidate former Soviet states that now align with the West, a number of them NATO members.

“The INF Treaty is dead – it’s dead because Russia killed it,” says Franklin Miller, a former special assistant on arms control to President George W. Bush and now an expert on nonproliferation policy issues at the Scowcroft Group in Washington.

Saying, “you can’t call it an existing viable treaty if the Russians have been violating it for a number of years,” Mr. Miller argues that by staying in the INF the US is achieving “unilateral restraint – not arms control.”

US will get the blame

Still, he agrees with many of his colleagues in the national security community who say that the manner in which the Trump administration has gone about announcing its intentions to withdraw from INF will only hurt the US. It will assign responsibility for failure of an arms control accord to the US, they say, and solidify the global view of Trump’s America as a unilateralist superpower.

“If I were in government still, I would not have rolled [the decision] out this way,” Miller says, adding he would have worked to “put it on the Russians,” where he says it belongs.

Others are less careful in their assessment of the administration’s move.

“We’ve been effectively played by the Russians” to appear to the world like the power that killed an arms control treaty “that the Russian military never liked,” says Richard Burt, who was ambassador to Germany and the chief US negotiator for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed with the Soviet Union in 1991. “The fact of the matter is that the US is going to get the blame for ending the treaty, not the Russians – and that’s the Donald Trump ‘art of the deal,’” he says.

Yet while Trump may be happy to withdraw from what he considers to be one more bad deal for the US, it is really Bolton who is the mastermind behind the decision, others say.

“This is coming from John Bolton, who has never met a treaty that he liked,” says Ellen Tauscher, a former undersecretary of State for arms control and international security under President Barack Obama. And while she agrees that Russia has been violating the INF for years, she says that killing it is just a step in a piece of a larger design from Bolton – whom she notes was behind the abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2002.

“In the end, this is about not extending the New START Treaty,” she says.

Emboldening Russia

What worries some officials and experts alike is that an end to the treaty will only embolden an already scofflaw Russia to throw any caution to the wind and deploy growing numbers of the presently illegal medium-range missiles – further fueling tensions in Europe.

Indeed, Russian officials met Trump’s announcement of his intention to withdraw the US from the treaty with warnings that such a move risks setting off a new round of arms deployments in Europe. Replying to accusations that Russia is violating the treaty, the officials countered that it is in fact the US that is violating the treaty’s terms – through deployment of missile-defense systems in Poland and Romania that Russia says can be converted to missile launchers, and a growing use of what it calls “strike drones” that can serve as short- or medium-range missiles.

“On the contrary … we have provided evidence that it was the United States which has been eroding the foundations and main provisions of this treaty,” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday.   

In the meantime, some experts say, the US simply does not need to abrogate the INF treaty in order to address the growing challenge of China’s land-based nuclear-tipped missiles. In their view, the future of deterring China and its arms buildup aimed at the South China Sea will be more effectively handled with air- and sea-deployed missiles, which are not affected by the INF treaty and its ban on certain land-based missiles.

Some officials are pointing out that Trump in his weekend remarks underscored his openness to – even his preference for – reaching a new agreement on medium-range nuclear missiles with both Russia and China. The suggestion, officials say, is that the president may be taking a tough line on INF to jar the Russians and Chinese into going for a three-way deal.

‘Sleepwalking’ into an arms race?

Yet the over-arching concern of many arms control experts is that the US decision on INF will set the stage for mounting tensions and unbridled efforts by the major powers to out-arm each other with nuclear weapons.

“We could end up sleepwalking into a new international arms race,” says Ambassador Burt, now a managing partner in security issues at McLarty Associates in Washington. Already, he notes, both the US and Russia are spending more than $1 trillion “on a new generation of nuclear arms systems.”

Still, more cautious observers like Miller note that New START remains in effect until 2021 – and many things, including another US presidential election, will happen before then.

“I wouldn’t make any … predictions that this will affect New START,” Miller says. Noting that Putin, a “serial violator of arms treaties,” has kept Russia in compliance with New START suggests that he sees it as operating in Russia’s interests.

“How we respond [on INF] could affect the Russian response in the future,” Miller says, “but I wouldn’t make any leaps of faith at this point.”

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