The United States will officially leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on Friday, marking what some worry will be the resumption of a new arms race between Russia and the United States.
With the INF now essentially undone, 32 years of nonproliferation efforts will likely be reversed.
The 1987 INF treaty prompted the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) to dispose of nearly 2,700 conventional and nuclear weapons with a range of between 310 and 3,417 miles.
The United States and NATO have accused Russia of violating the treaty with its 9M729/SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles, which they say breach the limits of the INF. Russia maintains that the missiles comply with the limits of the INF, flying at a maximum range of 298 miles. But this has proven difficult to confirm.
At the same time, Moscow has accused the United States of being in violation of the INF by building a NATO missile defense system in Romania. Nonproliferation experts nevertheless maintain that the United States is in compliance with the INF, whereas Russia is not.
“I think that given Russia’s flagrant violation of the treaty, withdrawal was a justifiable step, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it was a smart or prudent step,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
“The administration recklessly withdrew from the treaty without any viable plan to prevent Russia from developing more and additional types of illegal missiles, and no plan to attempt to and avert a new Euro missile race,” said Reif.
In fact, the United States seems intent on developing three new weapons, all of which would surpass the range limits set by the INF.
The Defense Department has already requested $96 million for fiscal year 2020 to fund the development of three new cruise missile and ballistic missile systems — all conventional weapons, which are not being developed to be nuclear capable.
It’s worth noting that the United States maintains that Russia’s 9M729/SSC-8 missiles are nuclear capable — a charge Russia denies.
In their version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as well as the appropriations bill, House Democrats have nixed this $96 million request. The Senate passed its version of the NDAA, which included the funds for the missiles, and will likely do the same in its appropriations bill, leaving the two chambers headed for a battle as they attempt to reconcile the final NDAA and defense appropriations bills.
Furthermore, the White House has indicated that President Donald Trump might veto the NDAA if it doesn’t include a number of its requests, including $96 million for the new missiles.
For its part, NATO has been holding talks with Russia over the past few months, but has failed to convince the country to destroy the missiles.
The clock has been ticking since February 2, when the Trump administration gave notice that unless Russia starts to comply with the INF, it would pull the United States out of the treaty within six months.
Moscow has already said that it sees the INF treaty as burdensome and unfair, curtailing Russia’s weapons development while allowing China — which is not a signatory to the INF — to develop its missile program.
President Donald Trump indicated that he’d like a new treaty, one that covers not only the United States and Russia, but also China, although China has made clear that it has no interest “in signing such a treaty.”
The New START treaty, negotiated by President Barack Obama, is now the only international agreement designed to limit the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.
Capping the number of deployed nuclear warheads Russia and the United States can have at 1,550, the agreement is set to expire in 2021, with national security adviser John Bolton indicating that the Trump administration is unlikely to renew it.
Trump has called New START a “bad deal,” equating it to the Iran nuclear deal, from which he withdrew the United States in May 2018.
All of this puts global security in a precarious position: North Korea has been firing missiles in recent weeks, Russia has signaled that it will leave the INF as soon as the United States does, and Iran has started to move away from the limits set by the nuclear deal (increasing its enrichment limits and stockpiles, though as of now it is at least a year from having a single nuclear weapon).
If the Trump administration remains in power after the 2020 election, it’s unclear if and how it will shape its nonproliferation efforts. For while the three new missiles won’t be nuclear capable, the administration last year sought and secured funding for three new nuclear capabilities.
If anything, under its Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump administration has expanded the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and in its arsenal, respectively.
In the event that a new administration is voted in, Reif said it would be “entering a more dangerous and uncertain world.”