At the conclusion of last week, the inevitable finally came to pass. On 1 February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would be withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, following years of violations on the part of Moscow.
“When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded, and our security so openly threatened, we must respond,” Pompeo said at the State Department. The State Department first announced the U.S. intention to withdraw back in December, giving Russia a sixty-day window to come back into compliance. That window closed on 2 February. Full withdrawal by the U.S. now requires an additional six-month gap period, according to the treaty’s terms.
Pompeo’s message dovetailed a statement of President Trump, released by the White House that same day. “For far too long, Russia has violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad,” Trump declared.
Hours after the administration made clear their intent to leave the INF, Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded by slamming the decision, claiming —as they have for a long time— that there is no evidence of Moscow’s alleged non-compliance. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova added that Washington’s choice to leave the treaty is part of a broader policy agenda to dispose of it’s “responsibilities”—a clear jab at Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year.
As expected, the following day Russian President Vladimir Putin told media sources that his country would also be leaving the arms deal. “Our American partners announced that they are suspending their participation in the treaty, and we are suspending it too,” Putin said.
The End of an Era
The INF was one of the landmark deals solidified by the Reagan administration.
The trigger to pursue such a treaty came in the late 1970s when Russia began ramping up its deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) throughout its European territories. NATO allies began getting nervous. Seeing that a tit-for-tat response would only escalate things, the Carter administration began looking into a diplomatic route. Actual talks only got off the ground once Ronald Reagan came into office. The position of the U.S. was simple: any deal must be based on full reciprocity. Limits on U.S. deployment or stockpiling must be undertaken by the Soviets as well. Some six years after the two sides first sat down to talk —and following not a few hiccups along the way— the U.S. and the Soviets finally solidified a deal in 1987. The Americans ended up decommissioning three full missile systems from their arsenal. Six Soviet systems fell under the INF’s parameters and were recalled or destroyed.
The signing of the INF was seen at the time as a major achievement in ensuring stability on the European continent. It also confirmed that the Russian and U.S. sides could come together on a major scale-back on their respective militaries.
Still the INF (as well as the last two decades of it being in force) was not without its drawbacks.
On a fundamental level, the major con of the INF was that it leaves a major hole in capping the nuclear capabilities of the another great power: China.
For years observers have been pointing to this flaw of the treaty, as the People’s Republic of China, “the real source” of global nuclear instability, isn’t bound by it. Just as a fence is of little use if it’s missing a single section along its length, if just one world power is free to amass and deploy missiles, any treaty won’t be very helpful in ensuring international balance. China’s non-party status was one of the earliest reasons cited by the administration to leave the INF. “Unless […] China comes to us and say’s, ‘Let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’ But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” Trump told reporters last October.
Violations of INF statutes have also been an issue for years. The United States has been claiming Russian violations for at least the past twelve years, the latest being the deployment of the 9M729 system, which has been reported on since at least 2014. Following the news of the U.S. pullout, NATO published a statement supporting Washington’s accusations, and “strongly support[s] the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF.”
Since the first rumors of a possible pullout from INF, experts have been arguing on the wisdom of such a move. The arguments of naysayers have mostly been based on the credibility factor, namely that withdrawing from any commitment undermines the standing of the United States. Of course the argument countering this is that it is even more undermining for America to remain loyal to a deal that has long been defunct.
Some policymakers have raised the point of efficacy in leaving INF. “Of course the Russians have been cheating on the INF treaty for years; the question is how we punish them for cheating,” said Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democratic member of Congress. According to Cooper and those with his stance, leaving INF will only trigger more arms development and deployment, ultimately detracting from the goal of curbing missile proliferation.
While these officials certainly have a point, building a deal that works often requires scrapping the current dysfunctional one. The fact that the Russians and the administration have both expressed hope for a new missile treaty to replace INF leaves room for optimism.