The INF Treaty Must Be Saved

The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has been in danger of collapsing in recent years. Russia has been developing a new ground-launched cruise missile that contravenes the treaty, and NATO has raised concerns over the deployment of Russian missile systems to the exclave of Kaliningrad. Russia asserts that it is responding to the deployment of NATO missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which also violate the treaty. Regardless of who bears ultimate responsibility for these escalations, the INF Treaty is one of the most critical arms control agreements to come out of the Cold War, and it must be upheld.

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What is the INF Treaty?

Signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev, the INF Treaty completely bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. During the 1970s, NATO was concerned over the Soviet Union’s new SS-20 road-mobile ballistic missile, which was believed to be a nuclear-capable platform. The United States, looking to reassure its European allies that they were covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, began deploying comparable intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe.

The United States and the Soviet Union entered into negotiations to find a way to head-off a new missile crisis. At first, neither took the negotiations seriously; neither superpower was eager to weaken its arsenal by removing an entire category of missile.  NATO’s Western European members, who would be most affected by these intermediate-range weapons, were the driving force behind the talks for the first half of the 1980s. The Reagan administration was not satisfied with the partial removal proposals that were being passed around at the time, and Soviet leaders Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko were not willing to weaken their strategic position.  It was not until Gorbachev came to power in 1985 that negotiations were really able to gain traction.

The resulting treaty, signed in December 1987 and entering into force in 1988, was the first treaty between the two super powers that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapon from both nations’ arsenals. The United States destroyed 800 intermediate-range launch systems and the Soviet Union destroyed another 1,800. The treaty also required both nations to submit to on-site inspections by their opposite number. Disputes were to be arbitrated at a Special Verification Commission, which has met 30 times since the treaty entered into force.

What is happening to the INF Treaty now?

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the INF Treaty was re-signed by the Soviet Union’s major successor states: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. While these four and the United States are the only official signatories of the treaty, many other European nations have used it as a basis to destroy their own intermediate-range arsenals. Notably, it is the only Cold War-era arms control agreement between the United States and former Soviet Union still in effect. For an arms control agreement, it has had a strong rate of success.

In 2014, however, the United States accused Russia of being in violation of the treaty. In subsequent reports and press releases, the State Department asserted that Russia has been developing and testing intermediate-range missiles, an activity explicitly banned by the treaty. It was not until December 2017 that the United States was willing to offer specific accusations: Russia is developing an extended range version of the Iskander K short-range cruise missile, referred to as the 9M729, that allegedly violates the limits of the treaty. Furthermore, Russia has deployed short-range Iskander missiles to the exclave of Kaliningrad, only serving to further destabilize the situation.

Conversely, Russia has accused the United States of violating the treaty through the deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, specifically the Mark 41 Vertical Launch System. Russia alleges that this system can be used to launch offensive missiles. Russia is also claiming that the INF Treaty is preventing them from countering weapons under development in China, who is not party to the treaty.

Worse still, the United States may be looking to abandon the treaty altogether. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review outlines how, given Russia’s violations and a precarious strategic environment, the United States will begin developing nonstrategic nuclear weapons and new ground-launched intermediate-range missiles to counter the missiles supposedly under development in Russia.

Save the INF Treaty

A first step would be for the United States to get its European allies fully committed to opposing Russian deployments. This can be accomplished by stressing the danger of Russia’s new missiles and continuing to share specifics on how Russia is violating the treaty. Second, the Special Verification Commission can be used to demonstrate to Russia that the missile defense systems in question are not offensive. This would reaffirm the inspection process that made the INF Treaty previously successful, and put pressure on Russia to take a positive next step.

While the treaty may seem to be hanging by a thread, it can still be saved. The Special Verification Commission can be used as a means to rebuild trust through transparency, as was its original intent. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of political will to save the treaty, mirroring the hesitation around the treaty’s initial negotiation in the early 1980s. In circumstances where neither Putin nor Trump will throw their weight behind the treaty, the burden must fall on the other members of NATO, as it did in 1979.

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