A new nuclear arms race? How the U.S. withdrawing from a treaty with Russia increases the risk

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty at the White House in Washington Dec. 8 1987. (CNS photo/Reuters)Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty at the White House in Washington Dec. 8 1987. (CNS photo/Reuters)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

This is very interesting reading in the light of the multiple other articles in America which depict Trump as “Putin’s pawn”, “Putin’s lapdog” , “a tool of the Russians” and “inexcusably deferential to Russian demands”. Something here just does not seem to fit “the Russians are actually in control narrative”......

Judith Jordan
2 months 3 weeks ago

Stuart Meisenzahl

Your comments are valid for leaders who have rational, researched, and consistent policies.
These attributes do not apply to Trump.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Judith
My comments are directed at authors who demonstrate a total inconsistency in the accusations they level at Trump.
Trump’s inconsistencies are another matter entirely......but one thing is clear he has taken steps against Russia which prior leaders refused to do...ie., arming the Ukraine with real defensive weapons as opposed to “food rations” ; sanctioning the Oligarch Group around Putin; taking steps to kill the Nord Stream pipe line; insisting and enabling our allies to buy US LNG to break the Russian European monopoly in gas; directly accusing Russians of breaches of the missile treaty and requesting they destroy those missiles; blocking further Russian infiltration of Venezuela; etc
.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

The author is a reliable go to anti-Trump, anti-Republican writer. She seems to always find how wonderful Democrats are in dealing with the outside world while never mentioning the messes they have created. This leads Trump trying to clean up in what seems to be an unprecedented approach. She ignores the possibility that there is a method to his madness. It’s out there but she fails to present it. By not doing so she undermines her criticism. It’s just another hit piece.

James Schwarzwalder
2 months 3 weeks ago

You reap as you sow. After three or so years of bogus "collusion" accusations, is it reasonable to expect that President Trump would receive anything other than condemnation from "Dem-Dems" and those who practice "fake news". If Trump attempted to formulate a "deal" with Putin to re-establish a ban on intermediate range nuclear armed missiles, imagine the outcry. Yet I think that President Trump would take a chance to strike a deal if he can get some headway made with North Korea. It makes sense to have a multi-state deal if possible. I read a reporter's coverage of the recent Trump rally in New Hampshire. The reporter was surprised at the size of the crowd, how early some showed up (24 hours ahead for some) and the significant number of Blacks and Latino's in line and in the arena. Don't under estimate Trump's popularity and his willingness to stick his neck out to attempt a deal that is in the best interest of the U.S. If you think that no one understands President Trump, you are wrong. Plenty of people get the message, even when you disagree with the message.

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 3 weeks ago

There may be method to Putin's madness as well. The question is, will the chaos created by Trump on the international stage and at home weaken our country's position? Will having a documented welcher as president weaken confidence in the US from allies and make future deals impossible? Seems like a Russian goal is to generate division within its rivals. Who better than Trump? It will be interesting to see if the Russian hackers support Trump this time around. My guess is that they will.

JR Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

You should read other sources and not just rant about something you do not understand. My guess is if you understood, you would be horrified. Everyone should read

http://bit.ly/30qGXD7

to understand what the left is trying to do. Another word of advice is that the Montagnards always turn on the Girondists,

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 3 weeks ago

You're telling ME to read. Tell that to your Chosen One who never reads books. There is no core to the man, either moral or intellectual. I have eyes to see. Ears to hear. You Trumpers need to visit your ophthalmologists and otolaryngologists. Ideological extremism has warped your senses. I think it is time for me to take a break from the America Magazine Crazy Zoo. It's hard for me to balance this place and the real world.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Now Now Stanley .....before Trump was “chosen” we had Obama declaring “We are the ones you have been waiting for” .......It would seem that Messianic Delusions come with the personalities that seek the Presidency...I mean who can forget that when Obama was just nominated he announced that it “would mark when the seas stopped rising and the earth began to heal”

JR Cosgrove
2 months 3 weeks ago

Yes, should read so your eyes can see and listen so your ears can hear. You just confirmed you don’t do either. Yet, you rant.
By the way, I never thought of Trump as a chosen one nor have I ever praised him that much. If anything he was chosen by the excesses of the liberals and his main utility is frustrating the craziness of the left. There is a lot I believe he does wrong but driving the crazies of the left bonkers is his greatest asset. He has revealed who they are.
Hope you come back!!! We will miss your flair

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 3 weeks ago

Prof Love archly notes:
“Mr. Trump has not directly engaged in negotiations with Mr Putin on these matters, in contrast with his personal deal making approach in engaging the leader of North Korea.”

Given the past and current hail of comments hurled at Trump in connection with the Russian Collusion hoax ... “Putin’s lap dog “ , “an agent of Russia” , “Treasonous deferral to the Russians ,etc.....it would have been beyond foolhardy and counter productive in the extreme for Trump to have been engaged in “direct negotiations with Putin”. Whatever the result John Brennan et al would have cried “treason” ;.....Joe Scarborough would be provocatively asking “What else has been agreed upon”; Anna Navarro would be demanding “ The translator’s notes”;......Don Lemon would be asking”How many hotels are involved in this deal”
I suppose he could have just mimicked his predecessor and signaled
“I can be more flexible after the impeachment uproar is over “

Indeed Trump warned repeatedly that the mindless pursuit of the Russian Collusion hoax would damage attempts to have better relations with Russia. Now comes the liberal professor deploring the results of that prediction.

Alan Johnstone
2 months 2 weeks ago

What an impoverished vision of the human condition writers like this demonstrate.

If anyone has lived a decade or more intelligently absorbing data from the societies they occupy and from others they do not and still expects leaders to be 'normal' demonstrates small town parochial bias.

Your President Donald Trump has a good degree from an excellent university thereby demonstrating a significantly above average IQ.
He has demonstrated competence in the market place where the score is kept by levels of wealth, again demonstrating above average performance.
Now, blend that with skill as a showman and a trickster.

You get a leader who is not so easy to second-guess. a great asset in a person representing a powerful nation and a society consisting of diverse and highly self-important individuals with many guaranteed freedoms facing a collection of dangerous and hostile foreign forces.

Why on earth would you want the Commander in Chief to be able to be read like an open book, to signal his tactics and strategies? For the press? For his enemies?

The enemies of God and the enemies of freedom are not pussy cats.

Charles Erlinger
2 months 2 weeks ago

The U.S. withdrawal from the INS Treaty has generated many analyses, both in popular media and in academic and think tank publications. Some of these include comprehensive historical recapitulations of decisions and actions by both of the international antagonists. It seems reasonable to conclude that if blame is to be placed for the long process of disintegration of the nuclear arms constraint regime that has nominally been in place since approximately 1989, it should be placed squarely on both sides of the contention. This history provides a bonanza for blame-fixers and what-about commenters. And this bonanza provides a perfect opportunity to change the subject from the existential, truly sobering situation, to the past, in which everyone can express profundity. But what’s next?

The fix for the present problem does not consist in reconstructing agreements and partnerships that are currently in shambles. These arrangements failed for a reason. Their value was not compelling at a certain point in the past. This realization obviously did not become clear to all parties simultaneously, and some sought to hang on to agreements far longer than others, even when serious violations were obvious.

Right now the biggest obstacle to embarking on a fresh approach, if not to international nuclear virtue, then at least to minimally rational behavior, is an underestimation of our mutual peril.

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