February 5, 2019

IntelBrief: A Farewell to Arms Control

President Donald Trump walks on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base Feb. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) .
  • Just last week, the United States pulled out of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing years of Russian violations.
  • On February 02, Russia announced that it, too, would suspend adherence to the treaty, sparking fears of a renewed arms race reminiscent of the Cold War.
  • China wants Russia and the U.S. to remain in the treaty while arguing against expanding its scope or mandate to include Beijing’s nuclear weapons program.
  • The widely expected move highlights the trend of Washington moving away from Cold War-era frameworks that proved essential to decades of stability.


The treaties on missile defense and nuclear deterrence negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War avoided escalation and kept that war relatively ‘cold’. However, as the United States moves toward a more unilateral posture, those treaties are being discarded as relics of a bygone era. The latest example is the de facto end of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). For months, the U.S. has stated that, if Russia failed to end an ongoing pattern of INF violations dating back five years, Washington would suspend its adherence to the 32-year treaty. Russia consistently denied any proscribed activity and so on February 1, the U.S. announced it was pausing its observation of the INF treaty while leaving a six-month window before its official termination.

In announcing the U.S. decision, which was long expected given the consistent statements by senior officials (and even NATO leadership), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered that the U.S. ‘can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.’ NATO released a statement that concurred with the U.S. position, placing responsibility for the unraveling treaty squarely on Moscow. At a February 2 appearance, Russian President Putin declared that Russia would also suspend adherence to the treaty and begin developing weapons outlawed by the INF. Putin went on to state that Russia would not seek new talks with the U.S., preferring instead to wait until the U.S. and NATO were prepared to engage in a more ‘meaningful and substantive’ dialogue. The U.S. is now building its first long-range nuclear weapons since 1991, a move that has not gone unnoticed by other countries seeking to modernize their own arsenals.

The INF addressed one of the most important issues dominating the global security agenda: dealing with and effectively deterring the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union possessed an overwhelming advantage in troop numbers in Europe, so the U.S. needed a credible deterrent to forestall a potential Soviet invasion of a NATO allied-country. Still, the deterrent had to stop short of triggering all-out nuclear Armageddon between Washington and Moscow. To that end, the U.S. developed and began to station a land-based nuclear missile in Europe that could provide a credible deterrence to prevent the Red Army from flowing across the Fulda Gap in an all-out ground invasion. The Soviet Union had earlier announced the development of its own land-based intermediate range missile. The threat of these weapons being employed was so great that it led to years of serious negotiations that culminated with President Reagan and President Gorbachev signing the INF treaty.

When the INF was signed, Russia and the U.S. were the only two countries with mature intermediate-range nuclear capabilities. Now, China and others such as Pakistan, India, and North Korea, are thought to have such capability—and they are not bound by the INF treaty. China has stated that Russia and the U.S. should adhere to the INF and objects to any efforts to expand the treaty beyond its current scope. China’s exclusion from the INF is as important a factor in the U.S. decision as the consistent Russian violations. The entire construct of nuclear arms control is at risk again, unfolding against the backdrop of a Western alliance in decay, due in part to deliberate U.S. policies. There is no immediate plan to revive talks aimed at crafting a new and comprehensive agreement, something that would be incredibly difficult given the number and diversity of countries involved. Without an aggressive push to begin negotiations toward this end, however, the abrogation of the INF could galvanize a new arms race, making the threats faced during the Cold War seem modest by comparison.


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