By Kingston Reif
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement last October that he planned to “terminate” the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the chances were remote that the United States and Russia could achieve an 11th-hour diplomatic miracle to save the treaty and reduce the growing risk of a renewed missile race in Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel persuaded Trump to hold off on withdrawal for 60 days to give diplomacy one last chance, but Washington and Moscow spent more time assigning blame for the crisis than discussing ways to resolve their concerns. Those issues revolve around the years-old U.S. charges that Russia developed and deployed a treaty-prohibited, ground-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the 9M729, and Russian countercharges that the United States is violating the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)
It came as no surprise, therefore, that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally declared on Feb. 2 that the United States would withdraw from the treaty effective in August. Pompeo also stated that Washington would immediately suspend its obligations under the pact. The announcement reflected National Security Advisor John Bolton’s long-held opposition to the INF Treaty and other negotiated arms limitation agreements.
Russia immediately reciprocated by announcing that it too would suspend its treaty obligations.
To make matters worse, as the INF Treaty draws its final breaths, the future of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is increasingly uncertain. If New START is allowed to expire without a replacement in 2021, there will be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest strategic arsenals for the first time since 1972.
The INF Treaty required Russia and the United States to eliminate permanently their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Pompeo left open the possibility that the United States would return to the treaty if Russia verifiably eliminates “all 9M729 missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment in this six-month period.”
Russia, however, has given no indication that it would meet U.S. demands for an inspection of the missiles; and the United States is similarly unwilling to address Russia’s concerns about U.S. treaty compliance, notably the fielding of U.S. missile defense interceptor launchers in Europe that Moscow says could be used to launch offensive missiles in violation of the agreement.
New Missile Deployments in Europe?
Although apparently eager to end the treaty, the White House has yet to articulate a strategy to prevent Russia from building more and new types of land-based, intermediate-range missiles.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a Feb. 2 meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Russia would retaliate to the U.S. abrogation of the agreement by beginning research and development on “land-based modifications of the sea-based Kalibr launching systems” and “land-based launchers for hypersonic intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles.”
Putin added that Russia would “not deploy intermediate-range or shorter-range weapons, if we develop weapons of this kind, neither in Europe nor anywhere else, until U.S. weapons of this kind are deployed to the corresponding regions of the world.” If there were such U.S. deployments, however, Putin vowed Feb. 20 that Russia would “be forced to respond with mirror or asymmetric actions” such as Russian “weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from [Europe], but also in areas that contain [U.S.] decision-making centers for the missile systems threatening us.”
In his Feb. 6 State of the Union address, Trump alluded to negotiating a new intermediate-range missile agreement that would also include China, but the administration has not yet raised the issue with China, which possesses hundreds of land-based, intermediate-range missiles. Joining the INF Treaty would mean that China would have to eliminate 95 percent of its missile arsenal.
Some European leaders have suggested diplomatic options that could avert a new missile race that would undermine European security.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto proposed on Feb. 16 at the Munich Security Conference that the United States and Russia could agree to keep Europe “free” of INF Treaty-prohibited missiles.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said before Feb. 12 meetings with NATO defense ministers that the alliance is “planning for a world without the INF Treaty.”
“Any steps we take will be coordinated, measured, and defensive,” he added. “We do not intend to deploy new ground-based nuclear missiles in Europe.” Stoltenberg did not say whether the alliance, which has expressed support for the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, would also forgo the deployment of conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles.
Congress approved $48 million in fiscal year 2019 to research and develop concepts and options for such conventional missile systems. (See ACT, November 2018.) The status of the development work is unclear.
Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told PBS NewsHour on Feb. 7 that the United States is not currently planning to deploy banned missiles in Europe, but noted that “when we develop next steps, it will be in consultation with partners and allies.”
The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2020 budget request, due for release in mid-March, is likely to include additional funding for developing new ground-launched missile systems.
Even if the United States were to develop such weapons, they would need to be deployed on the territory of allies neighboring Russia. So far, no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles. If one did, a bilateral arrangement that circumvents NATO decision-making would likely be controversial.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said at the Munich conference on Feb. 15 that Poland is “against” hosting U.S. ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles. If a decision is made to deploy such missiles, he added, “it will be a decision of all the [NATO] alliance.”
Consequences for Strategic Arms Control
In the likely event that the INF Treaty collapses, the only remaining U.S.-Russian arms control agreement would be New START, which expires in 2021 but can be extended by up to five years by mutual agreement.
The Trump administration has yet to formulate the U.S. position on New START’s future. (See ACT, September 2018.) Thompson said on Feb. 7 that the administration “has an interagency process addressing that.… We will see what 2021 holds.”
Before joining the Trump administration, Bolton was a frequent and vocal critic of New START, castigating the agreement as unilateral disarmament.
Russia has repeatedly expressed interest in extending the treaty, but it has raised concerns about U.S. procedures to remove submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers and some B-52 bombers from treaty accountability.
Thompson last year described the Russian concerns about U.S. implementation of New START as manufactured and raised concerns about Russia’s development of new strategic-range nuclear weapons systems, such as globe-circling, nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and very long-range nuclear torpedoes. Russia claims that these systems would not be limited by New START because they do not use ballistic flight trajectories.
In an 11-page paper sent to members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December, Russia described the U.S. conversion procedures as “unlawful” and warned that “these problems might potentially disrupt prospects” for New START’s extension after 2021.
New START gives each party the right to formulate its own conversion procedures. The treaty does not require conversions to be irreversible or that the other side agree with the conversion procedure.
According to the Russian paper, the Trump administration in December 2017 proposed two steps to address Russia’s concerns, including “a cabinet-level written political commitment that the United States does not intend to reverse the conversion of any of the converted Trident II SLBM launchers or B-52H heavy bombers for the duration” of New START. Russia characterized these proposals as “a step in the right direction,” but ultimately deemed them insufficient. It is not clear if the U.S. proposals remain on the table.
Pranay Vaddi, a former State Department official and now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a Feb. 19 email that this Russian concern “is a silly issue to stand in the way of a potential extension of the treaty, but can be resolved with minimum effort if the sides have the will to do it.”
“The United States and Russia should focus discussions on increased transparency using existing treaty mechanisms as a model, rather than attempting major changes to the [conversion] procedures, or to the regular operations of U.S. submarines and bombers,” he added.
The White House appears to believe that there is plenty of time left for the two sides to make a decision on an extension, but Russia is warning that time is short.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow on Feb. 7 “that there is almost no time left” to discuss Russia’s continuing concerns about U.S. implementation of the treaty and other issues necessary to pave the way for an extension.
“It gives reason to suspect our American counterparts of setting ground to…just let the treaty quietly expire,” Ryabkov said.
How Did We Get Here? Documenting the Demise of the INF Treaty
On Feb. 2, the United States formally issued its notification of withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, to take effect in six months, and it also announced the immediate suspension of its treaty obligations, raising concerns about a renewed missile race in Europe and beyond.
Russia immediately followed the U.S. announcement by declaring that it would also suspend its treaty obligations.
The treaty’s withdrawal clause sets a six-month waiting period before a party’s withdrawal takes effect, and the Trump administration stated that it would reverse its decisions if Russia returns to “full and verifiable” compliance with the pact during that time.
After a Dec. 4, 2018 announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States had found Russia in “material breach” of the treaty and that the United States would suspend its treaty obligations unless Russia returned to compliance within 60 days, U.S. and Russian officials held several discussions. Most notable were a two-hour Jan. 15 meeting in Geneva between Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which came to no conclusion, and a Jan. 31 meeting at the same level on the sidelines of a major powers meeting in Beijing, again to no resolution.
Although the United States rejected Russian offers to demonstrate and exhibit the contentious 9M729 cruise missile in exchange for U.S. demonstrations of its MK-41 missile launchers in Europe, Russia went ahead and held a Jan. 23 event to display equipment purportedly related to the 9M729 for an audience of foreign military attachés. No U.S. or NATO officials attended, and Thompson argued later that a static display would not address questions of the missile’s flight range.
For some time, the U.S. intelligence community, reinforced by NATO findings, has charged that the Russian missile exceeds the INF Treaty’s range limits and Russia has violated the treaty by testing and deploying the missile.
Russia has refused to acknowledge any noncompliance and has countered with questions about U.S. treaty compliance. Chief among those concerns is Russia’s assertion that the MK-41 missile launchers of the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense systems, currently deployed in Romania and under construction in Poland, can be easily converted to launch treaty-prohibited ground-launched missiles. The United States has refused to address the Russian concerns and has not appeared interested in reciprocal transparency site inspections, as several U.S. allies have proposed.
Following the Feb. 1 U.S. public announcements that official notice of suspension and withdrawal would occur the next day, NATO’s North Atlantic Council, quickly said that “allies fully support” the U.S. withdrawal. Some key NATO partners, however, showed less enthusiasm for the official statement. The French Foreign Ministry said Feb. 1 that France “regrets reaching a situation” that resulted in the withdrawal, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted Feb. 16 that the treaty’s termination was the “really bad news this year” for Europeans. Non-NATO allies shared similar sentiments, with Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stating that due to the historic role the treaty played in arms control, it was “undesirable” for the agreement to end.
Responding to the U.S. decisions, Russian President Vladimir Putin directed his foreign and defense ministries “not to initiate talks” on disarmament matters “until our partners are ready to engage in equal and meaningful dialogue.” He further directed that Russia “will not deploy intermediate-range or shorter-range weapons…neither in Europe nor anywhere else until U.S. weapons of this kind are deployed to the corresponding regions of the world.” This promise may have been undermined by The Wall Street Journal reporting on Jan. 31 that Russia currently has four deployed battalions of the 9M729 system, estimated to be nearly 100 missiles, including some within range to strike NATO countries.
In his Feb. 6 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump reaffirmed his decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty and raised questions of U.S. post-treaty military and diplomatic plans. “Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t, in which case we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far,” Trump said.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said several times, including after a NATO defense ministerial meeting on Feb. 13, that NATO has no plans to deploy ground-based “nuclear missiles,” leaving open the possibility of deployments of conventionally armed INF Treaty-range missiles in NATO countries.
Meanwhile in Congress, public reactions to the Trump administration’s treaty withdrawal announcement have fallen along partisan lines, with Republicans supporting the withdrawal and Democrats opposing the action. Democrats have also rallied behind several pieces of legislation to restrict funding for ground-launched, INF Treaty-range missiles unless several specific conditions have been met, the key one being a requirement that any deployment of such a missile in Europe come from a NATO-wide decision, not a bilateral agreement.
The “Prevention of Arms Race Act of 2019” was first introduced in the Senate on Jan. 31 by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and 11 Democratic co-sponsors, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), plus Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). A companion version was introduced on the House side Feb. 14 by Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and co-sponsored by fellow Democrats Ted Lieu (Calif.), Ro Khanna (Calif.), and Mark Pocan (Wis.). Separately, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) introduced legislation Feb. 14 limiting funding for INF Treaty-range missiles with Democratic colleagues Ilhan Omar (Minn.), James McGovern (Mass.), and Mark Pocan (Wis.).—SHERVIN TAHERAN