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With President Trump’s notice of withdrawal from the 1987 treaty abolishing intermediate-range ground-based nuclear missiles, known as INF, everyone agrees that the US-Russia nuclear arms control paradigm is breaking down. The treaty essentially abolished that entire class of missiles, the most dangerous dimension of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry.
Those missiles are not apt to be rebuilt now in the INF’s absence, experts say. Still, perceptions of the Trump administration’s pullout of the INF treaty can alter political realities. Russian diplomacy will almost certainly offer Europeans a deal in which Russia refrains from stationing new midrange missiles on the continent in exchange for a ban on similar US missiles in Europe. That would drive a wedge into NATO. Experts say Russia would be delighted to do that, but no one believes it can happen in the present circumstances.
“Basically, we have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council. “Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone. We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”
During the long decades of the old cold war, the USSR tried assiduously to create an appearance of equality with its main global rival, the United States.
Soviet leaders succeeded in only one single – but very durable – respect before their country’s superpower status folded: creating parity in world-destroying nuclear weapons. That forced US leaders to negotiate arms control deals aimed at managing the danger on an equal footing with their Soviet counterparts – a system that helped to keep the atomic peace in the three decades since the USSR ceased to exist.
With President Trump’s notice of withdrawal from the 1987 treaty abolishing intermediate-range ground-based nuclear missiles, known as INF, everyone agrees that paradigm is breaking down. Over the weekend, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is suspending the accord as well.
Though there is supposed to be a six-month pause in which the two sides might settle their mutual accusations of treaty violations, few believe that is anything more than a formality. Indeed, both sides are already talking about surging into this new era with formerly forbidden weapons systems, taking advantage of changed strategic realities and fresh diplomatic opportunities.
“We have seen this coming for a long time, ever since the US unilaterally pulled out” of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2001, says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy hand. “This special bilateral relationship we had with the US was based on artificial notions, like parity. And it seems clear to us that the Americans decided to dismantle the arms control system quite a long time ago. We realized that we would need to develop new weapons to overcome anti-missile defenses, and get used to a new reality.
“Still, pulling out of the INF treaty like this is a blow,” he says. “There is no way now to resurrect the old arms control framework. Too much has changed. We will have to find our own ways to adapt to and counter this, without matching everything the US does. Russia is really not eager to engage in a new arms race.”
‘No restraints in place whatsoever’
Only one significant arms control agreement between the US and Russia remains in place. It is the New START accord, signed almost a decade ago amid the warm hopes of the Obama-era “reset” of relations with Russia. It limited the capacities of the “strategic” nuclear arsenals of both sides, meaning the intercontinental weapons with which the US and Russia could destroy each other many times over. But that agreement expires within three years, and so far there are no significant talks going on to extend it.
“Very soon we will be in a situation the world has not known since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 convinced leaders of the US and the USSR that they needed to limit these destructive nuclear arsenals,” says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert. “Indeed, it is already clear that if we reject the INF treaty, New START won’t work anyway. If the two sides can proliferate the number of intermediate-range missiles without limitations, then what good are controls on long-range strategic ones?”
Known as “the treaty that ended the cold war,” the INF deal has been controversial from its very beginnings. Political and military hawks on both sides have never liked it. It was sealed amid a sunburst of goodwill in 1987, as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embraced a new era of peace and openness, which soon led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.
But it also had enormous practical effect, especially for Europe. Hundreds of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear-tipped, medium-range missiles faced each other on the European continent, threatening nuclear holocaust on a hair trigger. The treaty essentially abolished that entire class of missiles, those with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles, removing at a stroke the most dangerous and potentially unstable dimension of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry.
“If the two sides once again station this type of missile in Europe, then Berlin, Paris, and London will once again be under a six-minute warning,” says Mr. Golts. “It will be the same for Moscow and St. Petersburg. Six minutes is not enough time to make political decisions, to verify that an attack is really under way. With intercontinental missiles, you have about 30 minutes of warning time, which gives political leaders a chance to check and make decisions. But this time it will be worse than the 1980s, because then we had a whole structure of arms control like the SALT treaties and ABM, with constant consultations and verification procedures. Now there will be no restraints in place whatsoever.”
A different nuclear context
The Kremlin has been worrying out loud for some time about what it views as US flirting with notions of “winnable” nuclear war. Amid the current atmosphere of political mistrust and shrinking warning times, Russian strategic posture may change, he says.
“Now Russian doctrine is based on the principle of ‘launch on alert,’ which means that Russia retaliates only when its early warning systems confirm that American missiles are in flight. But if the warning time shrinks to six minutes, in the worst case scenario, they might go to ‘preemptive strike,’ which would be an extremely unstable situation,” Golts says.
Other Russian experts doubt the US would try to station midrange nuclear missiles in Europe again. Indeed, the main US concern is that a host of other countries, such as China, India, Iran, and Pakistan, have developed this class of missiles in recent decades without any treaty restraints, and it wants to have its hands free to counter them in theaters like the Persian Gulf and East Asia.
“The Americans want to deploy a wider range of weapons to counter new rivals like China, which didn’t figure during the cold war,” says Mr. Karaganov.
“We note that most Europeans are siding with the US in its accusations against Russia about violating the INF treaty and are putting the onus on Russia to fix it. We disagree with that,” he adds. “We think the US is driving this effort to tear up existing agreements and obligations, and they would be doing that regardless of whatever we were doing. But everyone also remembers how scary and divisive these midrange missiles were in Europe in the 1980s. It would be politically very expensive for the US to try and station such weapons in Europe once again.”
Still, the widespread perception that the Trump administration is behaving irresponsibly by precipitously pulling out of the INF treaty can alter political realities. Russian diplomacy will almost certainly offer Europeans a separate deal, in which Russia refrains from stationing new midrange missiles on the continent in exchange for a ban on similar US missiles in Europe.
That would drive a wedge into NATO. Experts say Russia would be delighted to do that, but no one believes it can happen in the present circumstances.
“Basically, we have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Foreign Ministry-linked Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s my hope that big powers will realize that they need arms control, perhaps in a multilateral rather than the old bilateral form, but something that will roll back the most destabilizing weapons and build trust. Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone. We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”