The INF Treaty Dies: What Happens Next?

Today’s media have duly noted that yesterday, 2 August marked the definitive withdrawal of the USA from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty dating from 1987, about which they had given advance warning months ago in keeping with the provisions of that document.

In particular, our television news and newspapers of record carried the remarks of NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who insisted that Russia is wholly to blame for the demise of the treaty, because of Moscow’s violation of its terms as first flagged by President Obama in 2014 through development and testing of a new land-based cruise missile with range exceeding the proscribed limits.

But the thrust of reporting is not so much on allocating blame for the repudiation of the treaty first by the Americans, then by the Russians. Russian claims that they had remained within the treaty constraints and their counter-charges against the U.S. over violation of the treaty are also reported. Instead, the question that seems foremost in the minds of political analysts is where do we go from here: what this removal of restraints on armaments means for the future? are we entering a new arms race that will raise defense expenditures and heighten the risks of war?

In his own way, Jens Stoltenberg sought to play down public anxiety over the practical consequences of the loss of the INF. He said that Europe will not enter into a new arms race. In this regard, we may be certain that Russia also will not be embarking on a new arms race, but for very different reasons: Russia has been engaged in a very quiet, unpublicized arms race with the United States ever since 2004, and as President Putin indicated in his annual address to a joint session of the Russian legislature in March 2018 and reiterated with greater specificity in his address to the legislature in February 2019, Russia now has a whole array of advanced technology weapons that it believes gives it a ten-year advance on the USA and can provide a persuasive deterrent to any thought of aggression that Washington might harbor.

In what is especially noteworthy, Stoltenberg announced yesterday that Europe will not allow American nuclear cruise missiles to be positioned on its territory. Such assurances are in fact addressed not only to EU citizens but to the Kremlin, which has said it will refrain from deploying cruise missiles capable of reaching European capitals so long as the American missiles are not installed on the Continent.

So far, so good. But this discussion around the precise issues that the INF Treaty was meant to resolve misses the more general, and more important nature of that Treaty. The INF Treaty, together with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty dating from 1972 that the US unilaterally withdrew from in 2002, and together with the New START Treaty signed in 2010 (replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991) regulating the numbers of warheads and delivery systems that the United States and Russia may each retain all had a common feature of engagement of the parties on a permanent basis to limit, verify, discuss their strategic weapons. Military-to-military, civilian to civilian engagement of the sides had the merit of preventing misunderstandings, clarifying intentions and building trust.

When George W. Bush announced the US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002, we may assume the logic was to free American hands from constraints on missile defense and prepare the way for what ultimately became the “global missile defense” that has encircled Russia and China with US missile installations that are nominally defensive but can easily be converted to offensive use. The ultimate objective would be to facilitate a decapitating first strike against one or both of these potential adversaries, so that the intention was clearly to alter the strategic balance and ensure unchallenged American world hegemony, also known as global leadership.

When Donald Trump announced the intended withdrawal from the INF Treaty, it fell perfectly in line with the policy of cutting all ties, all communication lines to and with Russia that President Obama put in place nominally as the US response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This feature of the action denies the mutually advantageous nature of the process of arms control, of arms reduction. It is the far greater threat to world peace than any of the specific contents of the given treaties regarding qualitative and quantitative limits on arms.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2017. Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018