This weekend’s announcement that the United States intends to exit the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has produced a cascade of concern from the Washington-based arms control community.
The Guardian quotes Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, as saying: “For the U.S. it would be a disastrous own goal to pull out when it has been Russia that has been in noncompliance for some time. It will open the door for Russia to expand its small and relatively insubstantial ground-launched missile arsenal.”
The same article has Alexandra Bell, from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, suggesting that Russian arms control experts have indicated Moscow might be ready for a compromise to salvage the INF Treaty. “You should be able to get somewhere with the Russians,” Bell said.
Similarly, Jon Wolfsthal, a disarmament proponent who served on the Obama administration’s National Security Council staff, told The New York Times that a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would unsettle U.S. allies: “Things are just now calming down. This would be another hand grenade in the middle of NATO to split the allies.”
Ironically, all of the above views, while seemingly supportive of arms control agreements, are in fact highly destructive to the cause of such treaties and their hoped-for ability to enhance U.S. and allies' security by reducing the chances of intimidation, aggression and war. International agreements only have their intended effects if they are honored by all of their signatories. That is the point of negotiating such agreements.
When one party continually violates the agreements it has signed without penalty, it establishes a pattern that undercuts the value of treaties and discredits the entire practice of such diplomacy. Indeed, when one party violates treaties while the other party complies, the national security and the credibility of the complying party — and its allies — is endangered and the violator is emboldened to continue the practice.
This is precisely the case with the INF Treaty, an agreement signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. It prohibited the testing and/or deployment of any ground-launched ballistic or cruise missile with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The Russian government had long chafed under the restrictions of the INF Treaty; during the George W. Bush administration, then-Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov repeatedly raised with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the idea that both the U.S. and Russia jointly renounce the treaty. Absent U.S. agreement, the Kremlin decided to go it alone, initiating a covert program to build an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile, which would violate the treaty.
Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have subsequently pressed Moscow on the program. The Russian response has been to deny any violation, while moving from research and development on the system (which is not prohibited by the treaty) to field testing, production and operational deployment — all of which are prohibited by the treaty.
As a result, the INF Treaty, for all practical intents and purposes, no longer exists. Russia continues to deploy the system (now identified by the U.S. as the SSC-8, its Russian designation being 9M729, or Novator) in ever-increasing numbers (so much for a “small and relatively insubstantial ground-launched missile arsenal”).
Russia therefore stands in “material breach” of the INF Treaty. And so much for “being able to get somewhere with the Russians.” NATO allies have been briefed and consulted extensively; the alliance has agreed that Russia is violating the treaty.
So the question for prudent policy analysts, including those who believe in arms control, is: what to do now?
The worthies quoted above would have us continue to believe in the myth that the INF Treaty remains in force, and to continue to rely solely on diplomacy to persuade the Russians to return to compliance, despite years of conclusive evidence that the Kremlin has no intention of doing so and that it is increasing its deployments of the prohibited system. But the fact is that a treaty observed by one party but violated by the other is not arms control — it is unilateral restraint. And such unilateral restraint only encourages further violations.
The INF Treaty is dead. It was killed by a cynical decision made at the highest levels of the Russian government to violate it, conceal that violation and then shamelessly deny it when caught. The only proper response is, first, to acknowledge this fact; second, to recall that the only reason President Gorbachev’s government signed the treaty in 1987 was to halt further fielding of NATO systems designed to offset the Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20 missile (deployments which the West had urged Moscow to curtail but which entreaties only resulted in additional SS-20s); and, finally, to consult with our allies as to an appropriate deterrent response to the SSC-8.
Perhaps then, faced with a counter that serves to remind Moscow why it signed the INF Treaty in the first place, the Kremlin might reconsider its ill-advised course of action. For arms control advocates, this is a critical juncture: “business as usual” while Russia continues to cheat, undercut treaties and destroy the integrity of arms control. The only way to save arms control is to insist that treaties agreed upon must be adhered to by all sides.
Franklin C. Miller is a former senior U.S. Defense Department and White House official. In his 31-year career, he helped shape U.S. deterrence and arms control policy in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.