US, Russia back off nuclear treaty. Is arms control coming to an end?

Why We Wrote This

If the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is truly entering its last days, it may signal that the world’s two nuclear superpowers' interest in arms control more broadly is waning.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Feb. 1, 2019. Mr. Pompeo announced that the US is pulling out of the INF, a treaty with Russia that's been a centerpiece of arms control since the cold war.

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In its day, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty set the gold standard for arms control accords. Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, it banned an entire class of weaponry. But in recent years, the United States voiced concerns that Russia’s deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile left it in noncompliance. And the US stoked Russian anxieties by pursuing superiority in sea- and air-launched missile systems. 

On Saturday the US said it was suspending the INF Treaty, and Russia said it was doing the same. Now, experts say, the key test of whether the era of arms control by treaty is over will be what the Trump administration decides to do about the New START Treaty, which expires in 2021. Experts say the demise of the INF does not necessarily spell the end of broader nuclear arms reduction efforts.

But Thomas Countryman, chair of Washington’s Arms Control Association, says the decision puts us at a crossroads. “In the short term the focus should be, can the INF be saved?” In the long term, he adds, “We’ll see if this forebodes an end to the whole arms-control system built over 50 years.”

When the United States informed Russia Saturday that it was formally suspending a landmark nuclear arms control treaty that had been a centerpiece of European security for three decades, it was more than just the demise of a cold war-era accord.

The US pullout from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 was also a sign of the waning interest of the world’s two nuclear superpowers in arms-control agreements more broadly.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin had done little in recent years to address US concerns, first aired by the Obama administration, over its deployment of a new ground-launched cruise missile that the US said left it in noncompliance with the INF Treaty.

Indeed, Mr. Putin wasted no time in informing the US Saturday that, in response to the US action, Russia too would suspend its participation in the treaty.

For its part, the US of Donald Trump has stoked Russian anxieties over American intentions by withdrawing from a number of multilateral accords – including the Iran nuclear deal – pursuing superiority in sea- and air-launched missile systems, and talking up development of a new ground-launched cruise missile.

The demise of the INF Treaty in and of itself does not necessarily spell the end of broader nuclear arms reduction efforts, arms control experts say. But if the INF withdrawal turns out to be more than a one off, and is instead another step on a path to a post-arms-control world, they add, then global security indeed just got riskier.

“Crossroads is a good word to describe where this decision puts us,” says Thomas Countryman, a former acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. “In the short term the focus should be, can the INF be saved?” he says, and if it can’t, “In the medium term we’ll need to see what steps can be taken to protect European security.”

In the long term, adds Mr. Countryman, who is chair of Washington’s Arms Control Association, “We’ll see if this forebodes an end to the whole arms-control system built over 50 years.”

Saturday’s formal notification of Russia of the US suspension sets in motion a six-month period during which Russia could save the INF by coming into compliance with it in a manner that satisfies the US. (Russia insists its new ground-launched cruise missile falls short of the range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers – 310 to 3,400 miles – prohibited by the treaty.)

But the Trump administration has hinted it would only be interested in saving a treaty that was expanded to include not just the US and Russia but China and other countries that have deployed mid-range ground-launched cruise missiles. The list would include India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea – making the US condition for negotiating a new and improved INF difficult at best.

Next up: New START?

In its day, INF was seen as setting the gold standard for arms-control accords, since it banned an entire class of weaponry. But experts say the key test now of whether the era of arms control by treaty is over will be what the Trump administration decides to do about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty), another jewel in the crown of US-Russia arms control.

New START, which mandates the mutually verified reduction in the number of strategic nuclear weapons each country has, is set to expire in 2021 if not renewed by then. Negotiations to extend such a complex treaty would not be easy and would require many months if not years, analysts say – at a time of little trust between the two nuclear powers and little sign of enthusiasm from either to reduce arsenals further.

“The Trump administration has to make up their minds this year on New START, whether they intend to go for modifying it, or simply intend to abandon it,” says Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia and NATO who is now a distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security in Washington.

“The bigger worry for many of us now is that withdrawing from INF is the forerunner of Trump abandoning New START as well,” Ambassador Vershbow says. “And that would be much more of a trigger for a nuclear-arms race reminiscent of the cold war.”

A world without both INF and New START conjures up a chilling scenario for arms control advocates. They see the rise of a revanchist Russia and heightened tensions in Asia due in part to an increasingly assertive China making for a more perilous world – and one that would be prone to a new arms race, only this time not limited to the two nuclear superpowers.

European leaders in particular are worried about their continent becoming once again the center of heightened US-Russia tensions and the staging ground for an arms buildup between the two.

But instead of envisioning new or updated agreements aimed at limiting each other’s arms buildup and nipping a nascent arms race in the bud, both the US and Russia seem to be interested in unconstrained arms development, some experts say – with China not far behind.

Role of John Bolton

Mr. Trump said last week after the INF pullout was announced that he hoped to “get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better.” But he has shown little interest as president in complex multilateral negotiations, whether on nuclear arms reduction or on other issues ranging from international trade to climate change.

Indeed many arms control experts see little prospect of major arms reduction efforts as long as Trump’s national security shop is run by John Bolton, whom analysts say never saw an arms control accord he liked.

“Looking ahead we have to consider the hostility of Mr. Bolton towards all arms control agreements,” says Countryman of the Arms Control Association.

“He’s had a major role in killing four signature agreements,” he says, listing those as former President Bill Clinton’s agreed framework with North Korea, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty scrapped under President George W. Bush, the Iran deal, and now INF. “He’s expressed similar hostility in the past toward New START,” he adds, “so I am concerned that he’ll find a pretext for preventing extension of that treaty as well.”

Still, some experts say there are ways to move forward even in the wake of INF’s demise that don’t require a big new treaty – if the will is there.

The end of INF may be discouraging, “but this turning into a nuclear arms race in Europe is not by any means foreordained,” says the Scowcroft Center’s Vershbow. With intense dialogue with friend and foe alike – with NATO allies, as well as with Russia – the US can find ways to secure Europe and to reduce big-power tensions, he says.

For example, Vershbow says the US could negotiate with NATO partners on deploying a new sea- or air-launched cruise missile that could meet the provocation of Russia’s ground-launched missile without requiring missile stationing on reluctant allies’ territory. Or talks with Russia could produce a commitment to limit the ground-launched missile’s deployment.

“We don’t have to return to the high tensions and divisions we saw in Europe over arms deployments in the 1980s,” Vershbow says. “But clearly the nuclear order built since then with these agreements is shaking at its foundations,” he adds. “Our priority should be finding ways to stabilize it.”

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