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The INF: Why the United States is Leaving the Treaty

March 01, 2019
On October 3rd, 2018, US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson set off a diplomatic storm after her comments on Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). During a press conference, Hutchinson warned Russia that continued violations would force the US to consider all options, including the possibility of an American strike to “take out a (Russian) missile” capable of hitting any NATO countries.[1] Russian diplomats strongly condemned Hutchinson’s warning, forcing the ambassador to clarify her commitment to diplomatic solutions later that day. But within just three weeks, to the surprise of many in the international community, President Trump announced the United States’ intention to leave the treaty altogether. Ultimately, the surprise decision to leave the treaty unilaterally was a result of Russia’s ongoing aggression despite damaging international sanctions and the changing geopolitical realities in Asia.

Image; President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev shake hands after signing t...Image; President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev shake hands after signing the INF Treaty ratification in the Grand Kremlin Palace during the Moscow Summit, Source: Wikimedia CommonsBackground

The United States and the then Soviet Union agreed bilaterally to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty on December 7th, 1987. The treaty required both countries to destroy their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5500 kilometers, along with all equipment and support structures associated with them.[2] By eliminating shorter range missiles, the potential for accidental or avoidable nuclear war in Europe due to rash decision-making was drastically reduced.[3]

Although hailed as one of the landmark arms control agreements in history, Russia has repeatedly violated the treaty in recent years. In 2014, the Obama administration publicly announced that Russia was in violation of the INF treaty after deploying its SSC-8 missile, which has an estimated range of roughly 2400 kilometers.[4] The map below shows how a missile with such a range, if deployed by Russia, could destabilize Eurasian nuclear security. In such a scenario, Russia would be able to strike Europe within minutes while a U.S. response would take far longer and require escalation. A Russian intermediate range attack could potentially target tactical priorities, but a U.S. response, which would necessarily have to use long range missiles, would be an escalation. Therefore, the US may be disinclined to retaliate immediately.[5] Another important risk is that tactical nuclear weapons may be under the control of lower level military officials. This democratization of control over nuclear weapons may heighten the risk for rash decision-making and unintended or unnecessary nuclear conflict. Nearly all NATO countries would be within reach of the SSC-8 missile if it were deployed at major Russian launch sites such as Kaliningrad.

Image: Russia's missile capacity, Source: Brookings InstitutionImage: Russia's missile capacity, Source: Brookings Institution

What were the United States’ Options?

Prior to deciding to leave the INF treaty, there were several other options for the Trump administration to consider when determining how to respond to Russian violations. One possible strategy would have been to turn the bilateral issue into a multilateral one.[6] As seen in the map above, the violation of the INF most directly affects the NATO allies of the US. The US could have attempted to build a broad international coalition to impose sanctions on Russia by sharing intelligence on Russian violations with key allies directly threatened by the INF violations. But in the context of the last several years of US foreign policy toward Russia, this solution would be unlikely to work. The US has imposed devastating sanctions on Russia for various reasons since 2014. Within just one year of sanctions from a coalition of the US and its allies, Russia had entered a recession.[7] In Q2 2014, Russian GDP was growing at a rate of 1.9% per quarter. One year later, its Q2 GDP was contracting at a 2.7% rate.[8] From September 2014 to September 2015, Russian natural gas prices fell 27%.[9] Thus, on a purely economic level, previous sanctions appear to have worked. However, from a geopolitical standpoint, the sanctions did not achieve their intended goal of deterring Russian aggression. Since those devastating sanctions, Russia has allegedly meddled in elections in the US and Europe and conducted a deadly nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K.[10][11] Russia conducted these operations with little regard for the international community’s sanctions. Russia has consistently shown that it is willing to take on heavy sanctions without changing its behavior. Consequently, the US had to look at other options.

One option was for the US to utilize the dispute mechanism contained within the treaty which involves an international special verification commission. This strategy would have been unlikely to work. Russia has claimed that the US is in violation of the treaty for the deployment of certain missile defense installations.[12] Any discussion would have likely required the removal of these launch systems, which would have been a large price for the US to pay. A more aggressive approach short of leaving the treaty altogether may have been to build up nuclear capabilities authorized under the agreement. For example, the US could have invested more into new Colombia class SSBNs or B21 long range stealth bombers capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Such a response would have been costly from an economic standpoint.

Why Leave?

The decision to leave the treaty can be justified as a reasonable response to Russian violations alone; however, it is likely that the increasing threat from Chinese nuclear capabilities have played a large role in the decision as well. China, like all countries aside from the U.S. and Russia, is not constrained by the INF treaty. US ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris noted last year that of China’s 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, “95% of them would be in violation of the INF”.[13] The INF is an obvious disadvantage to the United States.[14] Key allies in the region, such as Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan have been under immense pressure from an ever more assertive China.[15] Confidence in US security guarantees have been key to making sure American allies do not fall under Chinese influence.[16] Released from the limitations of the INF, the US now has the ability to place land-based intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Guam. Furthermore, the US could potentially try to place intermediate-range missiles in allied countries like the Philippines or Japan, however this would require extensive negotiation and seems unlikely. These missiles would have the ability to reach Chinese mainland and therefore require China to invest heavily in new unique defense systems.[17] Some critics of the move argue that the US is nowhere near ready to deploy such intermediate missiles.[18] However, these concerns do not account for the fact that the US has not abandoned research into intermediate nuclear forces. The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which preceded the INF decision, stated that, “The United States is commencing INF Treaty-compliant research and development by reviewing military concepts and options for conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems.”[19] Other critics have argued that by leaving the treaty now, the international community will perceive the US as unilaterally responsible for the INF’s downfall and endangering European security.[20] But so far, NATO allies have responded positively to the decision and stood with the United States.[21] Norwegian Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg echoed US reasoning for leaving the treaty saying, “We don’t have an effective INF treaty if it’s only respected by one party.”[22]

Looking Forward

The INF was built for the bipolar world of 1987. But in a multipolar world where US foreign policy has reoriented toward Asia, and Russia appears more emboldened than ever, the treaty’s effectiveness is less clear. The United States remaining in the INF would mean being the only country in the world constrained by it while allowing for an unrestricted Chinese buildup of nuclear forces that puts the United States at a disadvantage in Asia.[23] Moving forward, an option for US policy is to pursue an agreement akin to a multilateral INF, signed by all of the nuclear powers. This would be an intermediate nuclear forces treaty fit for the current multipolar world where rising powers like China and resurgent powers like Russia are challenging the hegemony of the United States. But for the U.S, such an agreement would require years to achieve as well as the ability to negotiate from a position of power, with the support of key allies, and intermediate nuclear forces of its own. Until that time, the decision to leave the current INF treaty provides the United States with a fuller range of capabilities to deal with the complex threats it faces.

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