Killing the INF nuclear treaty is the start of a new arms race

Killing the INF nuclear treaty is the start of a new arms race
Comment: The US withdrawal from the Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty augurs a dangerous new stage in US relations with Russia, and China, writes Imad K. Harb.
6 min read
04 Feb, 2019
After a six-month suspension period, the administration is expected to fully withdraw [AFP]
Suspending their participation in and withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States and Russia are likely embarking on an expensive and dangerous arms race at a very perilous time in international relations.

Naturally, said race is likely to harm both sides of the competition; mostly Russia. It will revive the old reciprocal suspicion that animated the long and tense period of the Cold War. It may also increase the dangers of possible miscalculations borne of ambitious strategic hedging and positioning.

As it is, the Trump administration seems to be ready for an arms race. In addition to increased defense spending, President Donald Trump has given his orders to the Defense Department to begin readying a sixth military branch, the Space Force, that would transfer strategic competition with Russia and others to outer space.

Trump's hawkish assistants, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, remember how the United States won a previous arms race.

Late President Ronald Reagan's 1980s arms buildup and Strategic Defense Initiative were essential elements in bankrupting the former Soviet Union, thus forcing its collapse in 1989. Bolton and his ilk now have no qualms about forcing a similar outcome in their confrontation with the USSR's progeny, Putin's Russian Federation.

Nuclear distrust and tit-for-tat

Acting on an American advance notice last October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Friday that the Trump administration has suspended the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The suspension will start a six-month period at the end of which the administration is expected to fully withdraw from the agreement.  

It augurs a dangerous stage in American-Russian relations as well as the future peace, stability and prosperity of the world

The Trump administration's suspension of the treaty was long in coming. In 2007, US intelligence detected a Russian ground-launched intermediate cruise missile test. While no action was taken (presumably because of uncertainty), each State Department Compliance Report from 2014 to 2018 contained firm accusations that Russia violated the terms of the INF treaty with prohibited missiles.

In October 2018, the administration informed Russia that it was planning to leave the treaty. The concern was not only Russian violations, but also the United States' inability to contain Chinese efforts - China is not party to a similar treaty - to build medium-range missiles.

In summary, no one can technically accuse the administration of making a precipitous or unreasonable decision on the INF treaty.

Republicans and Democrats in two previous administrations and Congress have seen classified and public information on Russia's transgressions. Additionally, considering Russia's bad reputation in the United States since the 2016 elections, it is unlikely that Mr Trump and his lieutenants will get much grief about suspending the INF treaty.

Not to be outdone by his counterpart in the White House, Russian president Vladimir Putin immediately announced Russia's own suspension of the INF treaty and ordered his military to begin developing a new generation of intermediate supersonic missiles prohibited by it. He also prevented his diplomats from seeking to re-start any nuclear arms control negotiations with the United States.

This tit-for-tat happened once before. In 2001, former president George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty that circumscribed the American military's ability to develop missile defense systems. The inability to produce these systems had become a liability for the Bush administration in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Less than a year later, in June 2002, none other than Vladimir Putin - in his first presidential stint - reciprocated by withdrawing from the 1993 START II arms reduction agreement. START II had been signed by late Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin; but its provisions were superseded by other agreements, which makes the current collapse of the INF comparably much more serious and consequential.

Briefly, the now almost-abandoned INF treaty required the United States and the former Soviet Union to permanently eliminate their inventories of intermediate (500 to 5,500 kilometers) land-based cruise missiles and allow mutual inspections and verification. By 1 June 1991, the two countries had destroyed 2,692 missiles.  

Read more: 
Polaris and the history of Britain's nuclear weapons

Signing the 1987 landmark agreement between former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had been the culmination of a 1979 NATO-wide decision to limit the production and deployment of both nuclear and conventional warheads in the European theatre. 

The INF's suspension and likely death, then, is of concern not only to American decision makers, but also to scores of European countries that had relied on the treaty's protections for almost three decades.

Justifications, stated and ambiguous

Like everything else, the Trump administration's action on the INF treaty does not occur in a political vacuum and serves it in multiple ways, both domestically and internationally.  

First, standing up to Russia's transgressions helps Mr Trump and the administration domestically. Mr Trump's presidency is still mired in scandal of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. The American president has also prostrated himself in front of Vladimir Putin and suspiciously avoids criticising him.

Appearing to oppose Russia's breaking the INF treaty and responding boldly may help, especially as Democrats begin investigating him and his relations with Russia.

There is a strategic need to address the Chinese threat to American interests

Second, President Trump cannot so blatantly ignore Russia's INF treaty violations because of hardliners regarding Russia in his administration and in Congress.

Pompeo, Bolton, and Republican senators in Congress need to appear to adhere totheir old anti-Russia mantra that has been shredded by Mr Trump's deference of Putin. Democratic politicians add their firm belief that the president is compromised to their old distrust of Putin to push for a harder line on Russia.

Third, Mr Trump's standing with European allies leaves a lot to be desired after his disparaging of NATO members and musings about abandoning the alliance. Matching Putin's actions on the INF can be used as proof that the president has NATO's interests at heart, although Europeans may not necessarily approve of an American-Russian arms race.

Finally, as previous administrations, especially that of Obama, must have reasoned, there is a strategic need to address the Chinese threat to American interests in a wide stretch of east and southeast Asia. The INF treaty only applied to American and Russian medium-range missiles, giving China a great opportunity to build its own.

To be sure, Russia's violations of the treaty gave the United States a good excuse to suspend it in an effort to counter the rising power in the east. And, exhibiting a firm stand on Russia is also likely to send needed messages to North Korea whose leader is to meet President Trump later on this month.

Be that as it may, suspending the INF treaty in preparation for abandoning it augurs a dangerous stage in American-Russian relations as well as the future peace, stability, and prosperity of the world.

But what should be feared now is the re-emergence of an arms race between the United States and Russia - abetted by China's strategic advances - that is assured to derail whatever diplomacy has been possible over the last few decades.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.