On 20th October, President Trump announced his intention to “terminate” the INF Treaty, indicating that the United States would withdraw from the deal. His move comes as a blow to international arms control, and especially to US allies in Europe, showing a careless disregard for diplomacy. If the INF Treaty collapses, and Russia and the United States fail to extend New START beyond 2021, the world could be left without any limits on nuclear weapons.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is a landmark agreement because it banned an entire class of nuclear delivery capable systems. In 1987, both the US and Russia agreed to eliminate all ground-launched conventional and nuclear missiles and launchers with a range between 500km and 5,500 km.
However, in recent years it has become increasingly strained. Since 2014, the United States has accused Russia of developing a new missile that violates the Treaty. Then in 2017, at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, the United States claimed that Russia had deployed the missile in question: the 9M729.
Russian officials have made counter-accusations against Washington, claiming that ballistic missile defence launchers deployed throughout Europe could be repurposed to fire offensive weapons. While it may appear outlandish to think the United States would repurpose these launchers, Jeffrey Lewis and Aaron Stein have showed that the US has done little to ameliorate Russian ‘paranoia’. For example, in 2018 the US Senate requested that the 2018 National Defense Authorisation Act to evaluate whether missile interceptors, including those deployed in Eastern Europe, could be modified for such purposes. Russian inspectors have never been invited to examine the launchers to assuage their concerns. Russia is being asked to trust, but not verify.
Even if many European states have grave concerns about Russian compliance, they have refrained from engaging in open accusations and struck a more restrained tone in their criticism of Russia. Europeans have been wary of pursuing a strategy of accusation and confrontation that could shut down avenues of dialogue and cooperation. Instead, they have publicly urged both parties to resolve compliance concerns over the INF Treaty and recommit more broadly to bilateral nuclear arms control, including extending New START.
European states have broadly opposed President Trump’s decision to withdraw. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put, ‘we have to make sure the baby is not thrown out with the bath water’. President Macron has stressed the importance of the Treaty to President Trump, while Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, has warned that US withdrawal risks a new nuclear arms race.
The United Kingdom has been alone in publicly supporting President Trump decision to withdraw from the landmark treaty. In the context of other NATO leaders positions, Gavin Williamson’s stance that the UK stands ‘absolutely resolute’ with the United States decision to unilaterally withdraw seems premature, when more could be done to address concerns within the confines of the Treaty.
The conditions for withdrawal should not be whether the United States believes Russia is violating the Treaty and whether the United States is the only ‘constrained’ party. Rather the United States needs to consider the impact of leaving the Treaty for wider European security in diplomatic, security and normative terms.
Diplomatically, the move undercuts US credibility. The United States should exhaust all diplomatic options to address compliance concerns before leaving the Treaty. Cutting and running, in the words of Jeffrey Lewis, allows Russia ‘to violate the treaty and Trump takes the blame’.
Militarily, there appears little reason to ditch the INF and develop and deploy ground-launched missiles in Europe. As Ulrich Kühn and Anna Péczeli have shown, even the deployment of Russian intermediate-range missiles does little to impact strategic balance in Europe itself. European capitals have no appetite for a 21st-century rerun of Able Archer Exercises of 1983, when NATO military drills combined with the impending deployment of US nuclear missiles throughout Europe brought the world closer to nuclear annihilation than any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg has already stated that he does not ‘foresee that [NATO] allies will station more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile.’
John Bolton has claimed US withdrawal is also about China’s intermediate-range missiles. But tearing up the last nuclear arms control agreements from the Cold War to counter Chinese conventional A2/AD systems is a massive risk. The United States should engage with China from inside the Treaty.
Normatively, President Trump’s decision is a huge blow to the wider arms control agenda. President Trump’s claim that until others ‘come to their senses, we’ll build up the arsenal’ reveals the belief that the US can get its way through threat and coercion. His assertion that he didn’t need to consult his allies on withdrawal, ‘because I don’t have to speak to them,’ shows a flagrant disregard for Alliance solidarity.
Here, it is incumbent on European allies to defend the INF Treaty and present a credible vision of European arms control based on restraint and international cooperation. This involves defending existing arms control but also thinking creatively about new arms control measures, nuclear risk reduction initiatives, and ways of avoiding misperception and miscalculation through the clarification of doctrine. Already, Heiko Maas has said Germany will urge NATO to push more forcefully for Russian compliance with the INF Treaty.
In the first instance, European Governments should urge the United States to stay in the Treaty and press Washington to allow Russian inspection of BMD facilities deployed throughout Europe. If the MK-41 launchers are treaty compliant, as the United States insists, this would give the United States the upper hand in negotiations. Such inspections could be offered unilaterally or traded for inspections of Russian systems that are alleged to violate the Treaty. This could be used as a base for new transparency and verification measures between the two sides. While it may be difficult to trust, the United States and Russia can verify.
Ultimately, Europeans must persuade both the United States and Russia to recognise the danger of military doctrines reliant on non-strategic nuclear weapons and the broader benefits of arms control for European and international security.