Although the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a bilateral agreement between the US and Russia, the recent threat from the US to withdraw from the long-standing, highly successful agreement is not an issue that should be decided only between the two countries.
We are all affected by the US–Russia relationship in its highs and its lows. Their security dialogue is a global security discussion. US nuclear weapons systems are part of NATO’s weapons systems and nuclear arms control agreements between the two states affect everyone in the world. Most significantly, any use of nuclear weapons that resulted from a conflict between them would have disastrous impacts for the whole planet. Every country, every person, has skin in this game.
The INF Treaty: a landmark agreement
It is important to understand the significance of the INF Treaty. In the late 1980s, following the most dangerous years of the Cold War, the US and Soviet leaders, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, began to transform the toxic, destructive relationship between the US and the USSR through new arms control accords.
The INF Treaty was truly ground-breaking. It eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons, including the Soviet SS-20s and the US ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles. All missile systems that had a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres were banned.
The treaty was also a first in its stringent verification measures to ensure that every weapon in the class was destroyed along with all INF-related training missiles, rocket stages, launch canisters and launchers, and that no more of these missiles were produced or flight-tested. By mid-1991, the US and Russia had destroyed 2,692 intermediate-range missiles under the terms of the accord.
Following entry into force in 1988, in addition to the usual monitoring by satellites, inspectors from each side began a set of extraordinarily intrusive on-site inspections including witnessing the destruction of missiles and their launchers, short-notice inspections, baseline and close-out inspections and continuous portal perimeter monitoring at two missile production plants – one in Votkinsk and one in Utah. These inspections continued for over a decade – ending in 2001 – and formed the basis for further strategic nuclear missile treaties between the US and Russia.
A new chill
But the political current in the US and Russia seems to have turned against arms control. In 2000, President Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian officials began threatening to leave the INF Treaty, suggesting that it was a ‘relic of the Cold War’ limiting Russia’s ability to develop new nuclear weapons, and that agreement needed technical clarifications to cope with new developments since 1987.
For the last four years, the US has been calling out Russia for pushing the boundaries of the INF Treaty right into non-compliance. The US has alleged that Russia has been developing a ground-launched cruise missile system with a greater range than that permitted by the INF Treaty, and in 2017 the Trump administration announced that that Russia had begun deployment. Russia denies the allegation, and points to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the deployment of the US missile defence system as evidence that the US is violating the INF Treaty from its side.
President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, is renowned for his disdain of arms control treaties. Before coming into office, he proposed that the US withdraw from the Treaty – it was on his watch that the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and from negotiations to strengthen the Bioweapons Convention. He also would pull the US out of the New START agreement that has reduced US and Russian long-range strategic nuclear arms.
Time for allies to stand together for international law
The problem with castigating treaties as less than ideal and then withdrawing from them is that the US and Russia lose critical levers to force compliance in difficult times. The treaties – however imperfect – form the legal basis for insisting on good behaviour and the legal basis for sanctions if a country refuses to comply.
If the INF Treaty falls, New START could be next. And then what?
The rule of law in the international arena needs to be supported and upheld by all. And indeed that is what most countries do. Most countries have joined the international treaties that restrict behaviour regarding nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The multilateral nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is approaching its 50th year of operation, the chemical weapons convention has held both Syria and Russia to account lately and a new treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons was negotiated in the UN last year.
When the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, the other parties to the agreement – the EU, France, Russia, China, the UK and Iran – worked urgently and cooperatively to try to save the deal, putting in place a financial mechanism to protect investment in Iran. Such an approach communicates the importance that countries place in international law and keeping their word in the long term. Such an approach is vital for building trust and demanding good behaviour from all.
This is a moment for the allies of the US and for those who can influence Russia to remind these heavily-armed military powers that these decisions affect us all and that the rule of law is needed to calm an increasingly troubled world.
Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director, International Security, Chatham House.