The Trump administration just announced it will officially withdraw from an aging nuclear missile treaty with Russia, a move that could kick-start an arms race and threaten the European continent — but also allow the US to better prepare for a war against China.
On Friday morning last week, President Donald Trump issued a statement that put the final nail in the coffin of the Cold War-era agreement, finalizing a decision that many experts — both happily and nervously — expected for months.
“Tomorrow, the United States will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty and begin the process of withdrawing from the INF Treaty,” Trump said. “For arms control to effectively contribute to national security, all parties must faithfully implement their obligations.”
In a press conference around the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Russia has jeopardized United States security interests, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
Trump was so pleased with his decision that he even made a reference to it during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address.
“Decades ago the United States entered into a treaty with Russia in which we agreed to limit and reduce our missile capabilities,” the president said. “While we followed the agreement to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms. That is why I announced that the United States is officially withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty.”
This is a big deal. The INF Treaty was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. The agreement prohibited Washington and Moscow from fielding ground-launched cruise missiles that could fly between 310 and 3,420 miles.
Both countries signed the agreement as a way to improve relations toward the end of the Cold War. However, both sides still could — and since have — built up cruise missiles that can be fired from the air or sea.
The problem is that Russia has clearly violated that agreement in recent years. In 2014, the Obama administration blamed the Kremlin for testing a ground-based cruise missile in direct violation of the accord. (Russia says the US has violated the agreement too, a charge the US denies.) NATO, the US-led military alliance formed to thwart the Soviet threat, said last December that Russia violated the treaty’s terms.
And partly after seeing Russia announce the construction of hypersonic cruise missiles last year, the Trump administration took the final step: It would leave the deal Moscow wouldn’t stick to.
So last October, Trump proclaimed the United States would leave the treaty, adding that he would give Russia 60 days — until February 2 — to come back into compliance. That led to months of hurried negotiations between Washington and Moscow to compel Russia into compliance again, but neither side caved. Now the US will officially leave the deal in six months, giving Russia a short amount of time to adhere to the agreement once more and change America’s mind.
That’s unlikely to happen, though. Which means that in only a few months, the Trump administration will have ended a decades-long pact that softened the rough edges in the US-Russia struggle for military superiority — and could reignite Cold War tensions once more.
Why it was a good idea to leave the INF Treaty — and why it wasn’t
Experts I spoke with last October about the prospects of the INF Treaty’s demise unanimously agreed that Russia has violated the agreement and that the US needed to do something about it. Where they differed, though, was over how to do that.
The answers fell into two camps: those who felt the US should try to coerce Russia into compliance with what they say is a historic and useful treaty, and those who said the US should leave the treaty entirely because it’s hurting America’s security.
Let’s take each in turn.
Why the US should have stayed in the INF Treaty
Having the treaty in place reduces tensions between the US and Moscow, some experts say, mostly because both countries destroyed about 2,600 ground-based cruise missiles in total, along with their corresponding launchers, as a result of the treaty.
That was particularly important for Washington’s allies in Europe, who were directly threatened by Russia’s stockpile. “Living in Europe, they care about INF more than anyone because they are within INF ranges,” Heather Williams, an arms control expert at King’s College in London, told me.
But it seems Trump made the announcement that he would be pulling the US out of the treaty before consulting with America’s European friends — and they’re not happy about the decision. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas last October called it a “regrettable” move, saying that the treaty is “an important pillar of our European security architecture” and that the US decision “raises difficult questions for us and Europe.”
Experts also point out that leaving the agreement will do little to make Russia want to abide by it. “Punching out isn’t going to bring them into compliance, and now lets them justify a buildup even more while painting us as the bad guys,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT.
These are legitimate worries. It’s possible Russia could have been even more brazen in its development of ground-based cruise missiles, and that remaining a signatory in the agreement somewhat curbed Moscow’s ambitions. But if the US tears up the deal, Russia could openly and more quickly build up its arsenal — all while claiming the US made it okay to do so.
That could kick-start a new arms race between the two countries, where each side would try to one-up the other with better weaponry. Washington and Moscow would grow their arsenals of ground-launched cruise missiles. That, along with other issues in the relationship, could potentially put both countries on the path to war, many worry.
There are ways to pressure Russia to comply with the agreement, experts told me. Here’s one idea from James Miller, the top Pentagon policy official from 2012 to 2014: The US should develop cruise missiles that carry nuclear weapons and can be launched at sea.
Remember: The INF treaty doesn’t prohibit the US from fielding and testing cruise missiles that can be shot from planes, ships, or submarines — only land. Increasing America’s stockpile of those other weapons, then, might pressure Moscow financially and militarily to come to the table to discuss a way to improve the accord for both sides.
But if Trump leaves the deal, the US will lose any and all leverage with Russia on this issue.
Why the US was right to leave the INF Treaty
Other experts are equally passionate that leaving the agreement was long overdue. The main reason, they say, is that America should have these weapons if other countries won’t stop building them.
“[T]here was no hope of getting Moscow to return to compliance,” Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, said in an October 2018 interview with his organization. “It doesn’t make sense for the United States to be unilaterally constrained by limits that don’t affect any other country.”
Having ground-launched cruise missiles may not actually be all that useful for combating Russia nowadays, these experts say, but they are necessary to fight off the growing military threat from China. That’s an argument that John Bolton, who became Trump’s national security adviser in April, made for years when he was a pundit outside of government.
The case has merit. According to a 2018 Pentagon report, Beijing has vastly improved its cruise-missile arsenal, which would likely make it harder for US warships to approach the country’s coast during a fight. Experts say that puts the US at a massive disadvantage and should be promptly reversed.
Eric Sayers, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me it wouldn’t be too hard to place cruise missiles on the ground near China — like in Japan or the Philippines — as long as those countries agree to it. The US could also deploy longer-range cruise missiles along China’s periphery to fend off Beijing’s ships.
What’s more, he continued, those weapons are cheaper overall than their air or sea variants because they are usually launched from trucks. Planes, ships, and submarines are complex to build and very expensive to maintain, making land-based cruise missiles a good option.
In effect, those who applaud the US for leaving the INF Treaty say the US has missed out on a vital weapon to safeguard the country. “There’s a reason China and others have them and there’s a reason Russia is developing them,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear expert at the Hudson Institute. “Those who confidently insist we don’t need them are spitballing.”
John Bolton is dismantling global arms control
The Trump administration’s dismantlement of decades of arms control work just so happens to correlate with Bolton’s time at the White House.
Bolton has been very open about his dislike of arms control agreements for years. In his 2007 book, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, he spends dozens of pages railing against what he calls the “arms control theology” that “had been painstakingly developed during the Cold War, and kept on life support during the Clinton presidency by devotion and prayer rather than hard reality.”
It’s therefore no real surprise that the Trump administration has withdrawn from multiple arms control agreements during Bolton’s six months as national security adviser. For example, in May 2018, the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which the Obama administration put in place to constrain Tehran’s path to a nuclear weapon. But Bolton — and Trump — felt that it didn’t go far enough, and ultimately decided to pull out of the deal.
Bolton is currently in Moscow to meet with top Russian leaders, and this issue will certainly come up. Arms control came up when Bolton was in Russia four months ago, when he and his counterparts discussed extending the New START nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia for another five years. That agreement came into effect on February 5, 2011, with the goal of limiting the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, the two largest in the world.
At the time, three sources familiar with Bolton’s thinking told me that he was “very upset” he had to discuss extending the agreement when he spoke to Putin about it. Before joining the administration, Bolton called the accord “unilateral disarmament” by the United States.
Some experts worry that Trump’s announcement about the INF Treaty means New START may soon die. Bolton, however, would likely celebrate that move.