Fears of nuclear rearmament as the INF Treaty crumbles
8 Feb 2019|

After foreshadowing the move late last year, President Donald Trump confirmed on 1 February that the US was leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The 1987 agreement banned the US and Russia from having land-based missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Specifically, the US suspended its compliance with the INF Treaty, and served formal notice that it will withdraw altogether in six months (the minimum notice period allowed under Article XV).

The statement released by the White House technically allowed room for the INF Treaty to survive, but only in the event that Russia destroyed ‘all of its violating missiles [and] launchers’.  The last ray of hope for such a prospect didn’t last the weekend: President Vladimir Putin followed America’s lead on 2 February by announcing Russia’s suspension of compliance.

To some extent, these events represented a natural continuation of Trump’s public frustrations with various Russian missile provocations. Indeed, the US’s anger at Russia’s non-compliance with the INF Treaty long precedes the current administration. President Barack Obama wrote to Putin in 2014, alleging Russia was in breach of its treaty obligations. For its part, Russia contends that the US has been violating the INF Treaty since 1999.

Even in this atmosphere of longstanding agitation, the US and Russia ending the INF Treaty has provided analysts with a surge of new reasons to believe that a new nuclear arms race may be underway. In a written statement, Trump said, ‘We will move forward with developing our own military response options’, underscoring his more bombastic line last year that, ‘We’ll have to develop those weapons.’

Unsurprisingly, Putin’s statement mirrored Trump’s: ‘They said that they are engaged in research, development and design work, and we will do the same.’ Putin explicitly denied that Russia would be ‘drawn’ into a nuclear arms race, but the implied threat is difficult to miss. Putin used the same statement to publicise Russia’s plans to construct a new medium-range supersonic missile.

Despite this Cold War rhetoric, the geopolitical balance between the US and Russia in 2019 is clearly incomparable to that between the US and the Soviet Union. World Bank data shows the nominal annual GDP for the US in 2017 as US$19.3 trillion, compared with US$1.6 trillion for Russia. America’s military budget is 10 times bigger than Russia’s. Talk of an ‘arms race’ belies the asymmetrical balance of power.

This dynamic helps explains why—for all the talk of belligerent Russian breaches—it is the United States that’s driving the destruction of the traditional nuclear order. Putin, after all, suggested to Trump in February 2017 that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) be extended. The new American president comprehensively rejected the overture. Whether New START will survive its 2021 expiration date is deeply unclear.

Admittedly, we can’t be sure whether the Trump administration’s agenda for dismantling arms agreements is reflective of a wider strategic objective, as opposed to an ideological distaste for international agreements. For example, Reuters reports that when Putin raised New START in 2017, Trump had to pause to ask his aides what the treaty was—before quickly panning it as ‘one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration’.  Trump’s proclivity for axing international agreements is well documented.

In any case, America’s haste to end the INF agreement shouldn’t be considered without reference to the geopolitical elephant in the room: China, and President Xi Jinping’s nascent missile program. Never bound by the INF Treaty, China has quickly developed an arsenal of nuclear missiles as part of its wider efforts to scale up and modernise its military.

There can be no doubt that the latent Chinese threat has helped galvanise senior American advisers. Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton (a longstanding China hawk), has reportedly told US allies that the INF Treaty puts America in an ‘excessively weak’ position against Russia ‘and more importantly China’. For what it is worth, Bolton is also a critic of New START, describing it as ‘unilateral disarmament’ on the part of the US.

One of the most important things to watch following the US exit from the INF Treaty will be whether Washington begins to scale up its own arsenal of missiles in the Pacific. Beijing released a statement on 2 February denouncing the ‘regrettable’ US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, but rejected the possibility of China’s joining any new treaty on intermediate-range weapons.

Even in the context of the Pacific power balance with China, however, it’s not obvious that scrapping the INF Treaty confers any real advantage on the United States. The INF Treaty only limits ground-based missiles, and the US doesn’t enjoy significant access to much land around China. Placing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in a country like Japan would be an operation laden with risks and complications (especially compared with sea- and air-launched missiles).

No matter the US strategic agenda, the demise of the INF Treaty is a blow both to the Cold War arms control architecture and prospects for global disarmament. Relations between Russia and the US will perhaps suffer a rupture, but look to the Pacific as the real harbinger of troubles to come.