Goodbye, INF Treaty. Hello, New Arms Race?

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (oleskalashnik via Shutterstock)

by Robert E. Hunter

This past week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States will start the formal process of renouncing the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty concluded by the United States and the Soviet Union (with Russia as legatee). President Donald Trump gave the required six-month notice by saying, “For far too long, Russia has violated the…Treaty with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad.”

In a televised conversation choreographed with his foreign and defense ministers, Russian President Vladimir Putin followed suit in suspending participation in the INF Treaty, as part of what he called a “symmetrical response” to the United States. Russia would work on new missiles, but Putin also said that “we must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race.” To underscore that point, Putin said that new missile developments would have to be done within the existing defense budget. He also said,

We proceed from the premise that Russia will not deploy intermediate-range or shorter-range weapons, if we develop weapons of this kind, neither in Europe nor anywhere else until US weapons of this kind are deployed to the corresponding regions of the world. 

The United States has accused the Russians, in Pompeo’s words, of being in “in material breach of its treaty obligations not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” Indeed, the United States has been making these charges for nearly five years and has not received a satisfactory response from Moscow or witnessed a change in its behavior. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has claimed that the United States has itself not been in full compliance with all arms control agreements and understandings and has failed to engage in serious discussions, etc., etc.

Does it Matter?

Does it really matter if the INF Treaty goes into history’s ash heap? No and yes.

In terms of military capabilities, including INF missiles with nuclear warheads, the Russian violations do not add up to very much. Despite the hair-splitting distinctions drawn by theoreticians during the Cold War, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, and how it is delivered doesn’t matter all that much. In the event of the tragic folly of their use, those on the receiving end wouldn’t notice how they were delivered.

There is also an argument for the United States wanting to be quits with the INF Treaty, and that involves China. It is unlikely that either Washington or Moscow would find much utility in the weapons in question. But with China’s growing military capabilities, including in the nuclear realm, some U.S. military experts and officials argue that countering its capabilities in this area of missile technology could help limit any possible destabilization in Sino-American relations. In the event of a U.S. war with China, such American weapons could also prove useful. In any event, there would be value in constraining Chinese development of intermediate-range missiles, given that it’s not now party to any such arms control agreement.

Beijing tacitly acknowledged that point by immediately announcing this past weekend that, although “China is opposed to the US withdrawal and urges the US and Russia to properly resolve differences through constructive dialogue…. [it] opposes the multilateralization of this treaty.” As with nuclear missiles in the European theater, however, it is not clear how being free of INF constraints would really help the United States militarily against China, given the array of conventional- and nuclear-capable weapons already available to the United States.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Missile Problem

The current struggle over intermediate-range nuclear missiles is an historical anomaly. It originally grew out of a central conundrum of Western Cold War policy and politics. In the event of a major Soviet conventional military attack on NATO allies, the United States was committed to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Despite claims to the contrary, that would have meant the start of a general nuclear war and perhaps even the end of civilization. Indeed, although the following truth was never spoken out load, the U.S. commitment was a suicide pact with its allies. It was history’s greatest gamble, but it paid off. The world might not be so lucky next time.

The problem was compounded when the Soviet Union began deploying a medium-range missile that the West called the SS-20. It could reach Western Europe but not North America. That risked “decoupling” U.S. security from that of its European allies, on the fallacious premise that a nuclear war limited to Europe would not necessarily draw the United States and then the Soviet Union into a general nuclear war. If the Soviets could attack just Western Europe with this missile, the argument went, why should the United States respond with nuclear force? The matter was made worse because of a speech given by the-then German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, highlighting what he argued were European doubts about the U.S. nuclear commitment. To those of us in the White House who listened to Schmidt, his arguments seemed to be less about the merits of the case than about his trying to instruct a new and inexperienced U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, on nuclear security issues as he had regularly tried to tutor President Gerald Ford on economics.

The United States countered with efforts to reinforce “coupling” by deploying in Europe both medium-range ballistic missiles (Pershing II) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) to balance Soviet capabilities in this category of weapons. That the location and range of nuclear weapons was in practice irrelevant to real-world calculations of deterrence was ignored by US and some West European leaders who took their cues from nuclear strategists.

Public protests were rampant across Europe against this visible nuclearization of security. In time, both the Carter and Reagan administrations sought a deal with the Soviet Union to eliminate these weapons on both sides (the “zero option”).  That deal became the INF Treaty, which dismantled the weapons on both sides and returned deterrence calculations to “normal.” What had been a largely manufactured problem of reinforcing the U.S. commitment to European security receded into the background.

Today, however, Russian and Americans leaders have resuscitated the debate. First, Russia has developed a cruise missile that violates the treaty limits, while also talking up the possible role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy. And now the Trump administration has decided to leave the treaty, while also endorsing a trillion-dollar nuclear weapons modernization program begun under President Obama. Both sets of decisions have reinjected nuclear issues into the Russia-West (especially U.S.) security equation with no visible benefit to either side but with new risks of miscalculation.

The new imbroglio over the INF treaty does not mean a revival of the old Cold War practice of nuclear deterrence, then appropriately called MAD (mutually assured destruction). There is no Soviet Union or European communist menace. Russia’s economy remains weak. Russian conventional forces are only a fraction of what they once were. And although a determined Russian military advance against some NATO allies (for instance, the Baltic states) might succeed, it would be a fool’s decision, even following Putin’s seizure of Crimea and support for military insurgency in other parts of non-NATO Ukraine. Russia would find itself isolated from the West for years if not generations, and both sides would get locked into a new cold war with all of its costs and risks and lack of benefits for anyone.

Most important, although a solid US commitment to European security remains important to reassure allies and forestall any miscalculation in Moscow—points that Trump still seems not to grasp—Washington no longer has to work day-in and day-out to prove to its European allies that it would “trade Chicago for Hamburg,” as the US government, including this author while serving on the National Security Council staff, had to do during the Cold War.

Why the INF Issue Does Matter—Big Time

The current struggle over the fate of the INF Treaty is more about diplomacy and fundamental strategic relationships than about weapons. It is just the latest demonstration of the inability of the West and Russia to find a way to deal with the latter’s inevitable return to the ranks of major powers, a need that was obvious even at the time the USSR collapsed. In setting out the hope of creating a “Europe whole and free” and at peace, President George H. W. Bush, followed by President Bill Clinton, tried to head off Russian revanchism and engage the country constructively in the outside world.

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1990s, both the United States and Russia abandoned this approach. Under Putin, Russia broke a number of security agreements, including guarantees of the integrity of Ukraine’s borders. The United States also acted unwisely by pushing NATO expansion too far, getting NATO to agree that Ukraine and Georgia would become members, and, in 2002, unilaterally abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Like the INF Treaty, today, following the end of the Cold War the ABM Treaty had lost most of its practical utility. But it still provided a means of keeping the Russians engaged diplomatically in major strategic and security issues and showing it respect, an invaluable sop to Russian pride after the USSR lost the Cold War,  as a supposed “equal partner” with the United States.

Following Putin’s actions against Ukraine, there is now very little U.S.-Russian diplomatic interaction that can help drain the swamp of mistrust and build on common interests. There is even some doubt whether the two countries will be able to work out an extension of the 2010 New Start Treaty, the cornerstone of the codified nuclear relationship, when it comes up for renewal in two years. That is a matter of central concern.

The Arctic provides the most notable exception for continuing cooperation, since Russia and the West, including the United States, understand that they share some common interests there (especially on climate change). Also, in Syria, U.S. and Russian forces have worked out some deconfliction arrangements to prevent conflict by accident, but military-to-military contacts elsewhere are virtually non-existent. And the once-hopeful NATO-Russia Council, a product of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act , is a dead letter.

None of this is good news: it increases risks to all, and it has derailed on both sides efforts to find some way of reengaging Russia in the outside world without threatening its neighbors. Russian misbehavior with its new INF missile and the impending U.S. withdrawal from the treaty just make matters worse. In fact, the United States has more to lose, because the Trump-Pompeo actions have just added to worries by America’s NATO allies about whether the current leadership in Washington even understands U.S. self-interest.

The Corrosive Impact of U.S. Domestic Politics

If U.S.-Russian relations were being worked on in normal times, something useful might be possible, in Russian-Western mutual interests, even following Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. But these are not normal times. Indeed, for more than two years, the “Russia factor” has acquired ascendancy in two areas of American domestic politics: to help explain why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election and to provide probably the best means to get rid of Trump before the next presidential election.

Indeed, Trump’s opponents have placed a huge bet that the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller will provide enough evidence either to lead to House impeachment and Senate conviction or to Trump’s resignation, like Nixon’s. Political leaders also regularly link Russia and Trump, even before Mueller’s report is completed. Only last week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi asked, “[T]he president’s continued actions to undermine the Special Counsel investigation raise the questions: what does Putin have on the president, politically, personally, or financially?”

With this as the perspective of the nation’s leading Democratic office-holder and third-in-line for the presidency, is it any wonder that any serious U.S. effort to work on issues regarding relations with Russia has become impossible? The linking of Russia to Trump in US domestic politics and the latter’s need to show that he is not Putin’s stooge may also help explain the strong positions Trump has taken against Russia, as on the INF Treaty. Yet, at the beginning of his administration, the president sought some way of moving beyond U.S.-Russian confrontation, which, if it can be done well, is profoundly in the U.S. and Western interest.

Ironically, it has been left to Vladimir Putin, with Cheshire-cat grin during his TV discussion with his foreign and defense ministers, to make proposals that relate to major security issues that also deeply affect the United States, its allies, and many other countries:

All our proposals in this area remain on the table just as before. We are open to negotiations. At the same time, I ask both [Russian] ministries not to initiate talks on these matters in the future. I suggest that we wait until our partners are ready to engage in equal and meaningful dialogue on this subject that is essential for us, as well as for our partners and the entire world.

The Russians, like the Soviets before them, are adept at disinformation and trying to throw rivals off balance, as was obvious in Putin’s TV colloquy. But in other circumstances, an American president should have been making this approach. That that is now politically impossible increases risks for all concerned.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.