A new nuclear arms race? How the U.S. withdrawing from a treaty with Russia increases the risk
The Trump administration ended nuclear arms control as we know it on Aug. 2, just a few days before the anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the withdrawal from which the United States first signaled last fall, was developed during the Reagan administration and signed by President Reagan in December 1987. It banned the deployment of ground-launched conventional and nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,400 miles).
These weapons threatened to quickly hit targets deep inside Western Europe or Russia with little warning, raising the dangers of nuclear accidents and miscalculations in a crisis. In an op-ed in The Washington Post last December, former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Secretary of State George Shultz, who negotiated the I.N.F. Treaty, argued that abandoning its limitations on intermediate missiles represents a threat to “our very existence.”
Over 2,692 missiles were destroyed under the treaty, the first time the United States and Russia destroyed nuclear weapons. The treaty also represented the first time the superpowers banned an entire category of nuclear weapons and developed extensive on-site verification inspections.
Without the I.N.F. Treaty, there are no longer any limits on destabilizing intermediate-range weapons. There are also no mechanisms for verification and transparency measures or other confidence-building exchanges.
Nuclear war caused by false alarms was narrowly avoided many times over the course of the Cold War. Among them, a training tape simulating a Russian nuclear attack that was mistakenly left running nearly prompted an American counterstrike and in another incident a flock of geese were incorrectly identified as an incoming Soviet nuclear attack.
In all these cases, decision makers had time (although not much of it) to investigate the evidence and determine whether a nuclear counterattack should be launched in response to the perceived threat. Shorter-range missiles offer no time for thought or the opportunity to de-escalate the crisis.
Without the I.N.F. Treaty, there are no longer any limits on these destabilizing weapons. There are also no mechanisms for verification and transparency measures or other confidence-building exchanges among military officials and nuclear arms scientists. In conversations with Mr. Shultz at Stanford University last year, he told me the I.N.F. Treaty represented “the beginning of the end of the Cold War,” ending the nuclear arms race.
Today’s only other remaining bilateral arms control treaty, the New START Treaty, which limits long-range nuclear arms, is set to expire in 2021. The Russian Federation wants to extend the treaty, but U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has been a long-term opponent of New START.
The continued participation of the two nuclear powers in the I.N.F. treaty has been debated over the past five years. The United States charged Russia with violating the treaty by deploying SSC-8 missiles, which U.S. analysts contend are ground-based and medium-range. The Russians contest this assessment. They argue instead that the United States violates the treaty through the deployment of its dual-use Aegis Ashore systems in Poland and Romania, with the capabilities to launch intermediate-range missiles.
In congressional testimony in March 2017, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “There are no military requirements we cannot currently satisfy due to our compliance with the I.N.F. Treaty.”
The Aegis Ashore Navy system, which can be adapted for use on land, was created to launch both ballistic missile defense interceptors (its stated purpose in Poland and Romania) and intermediate-range cruise missiles. The United States dismissed Russian concerns, responding that the computer software has not been installed in Poland and Romania where it could be used to launch ground-based intermediate-range missiles.
The day after the United States formally withdrew from the I.N.F., U.S. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper announced that the United States planned to develop and deploy new intermediate-range missiles in Asia—a type that had previously been banned by the treaty. The decision suggests that withdrawing from the I.N.F. Treaty has already accelerated a new nuclear arms race. Testing of these new missiles may begin as early as August, according to the Department of Defense.
In June the Department of Defense posted a new edition of its nuclear weapons policy indicating openness to the use of nuclear weapons, stating, “Using nuclear weapons could create conditions for decisive results and the restoration of strategic stability.” The Trump administration has requested funds for three new types of missiles that would violate the I.N.F. norms.
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House narrowly blocked recent Trump administration funding requests to build smaller, battlefield nuclear weapons. But military spending is popular in both parties, and previous requests have been approved. President Putin announced in August that any new weapons developed by the United States would be met with a Russian response.
Demands for ending the I.N.F. are not coming from the Pentagon. In congressional testimony in March 2017, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “There are no military requirements we cannot currently satisfy due to our compliance with the I.N.F. Treaty.”
Russia has declared that it will continue to abide by the terms of the I.N.F. Treaty as long as the United States continues to do so. Such voluntary arms control measures have worked in the past. Russian legislators have also said that any revival of the I.N.F. would not require additional legislative action in the State Duma. The United States has not responded to Russia’s offer.
Mr. Bolton argues that arms control agreements between the United States and Russia are not fair because they do not include another nuclear power, China. The United States and Russia together hold nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons, over 90 percent of the world’s total, while China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel each have fewer than 300. North Korea has an estimated 20 to 30.
China is an economic power with a small nuclear arsenal, no deployed nuclear weapons on high alert and a policy of no nuclear first use, unlike the United States and Russia. China’s negotiators have said China would be willing to participate in multilateral arms control talks when the United States and Russia reduce their arsenals to the size of China’s. Many in the arms control community question whether the U.S. demand that China be included in future I.N.F. negotiations is a poison pill, intended to kill arms control rather than advance it, as Mr. Bolton has been an outspoken critic of all arms control for decades.
In contrast to Mr. Bolton’s position, President Trump campaigned on promises to improve U.S. relations with Russia and has a strong personal relationship with Mr. Putin. Mr. Trump also has railed against increased spending on nuclear weapons, calling it “ridiculous” and “a total waste.”
But Mr. Trump has not directly engaged in negotiations with Mr. Putin on these matters, in contrast to his personal deal-making approach in engaging the leader of North Korea. Recently Mr. Putin has changed course and has said he wants to retain the I.N.F. limitations as well as to extend the New START treaty. Mr. Trump could engage directly in arms control talks with Mr. Putin and reign in his national security advisor, as he did when Mr. Bolton urged a military attack against Iran.
In meetings in Rome this summer organized by Global Priorities and supported by the Holy See, former Russian, NATO and U.S. military officers, arms controllers, academics and clergy urged restraint and offered numerous strategies to escape the current impasse. These include voluntary arms control pledges, the extension of New START, increased engagement and dialogue, greater public attention and pressure against a new nuclear arms race, and the updating of I.N.F. and other treaties.
At the Global Priorities conference U.S. General William F. Burns urged the United States and Russia to make deeper cuts to their nuclear arsenals. British Admiral John Gower proposed that all nuclear weapons states adopt a code of responsibility for nuclear weapons, committing to adopting the principles of “Restraint, Relevance, Reassurance, Readiness, Reciprocity and Reduction” in order to stabilize relations and pave the way for deeper nuclear arms reductions.
The group will meet again in Rome this fall, prior to Pope Francis’ trip to Japan in November, when the pope will likely address the church’s concerns over the continued development and possession of nuclear weapons.