Heralded by president Ronald Reagan as holding universal significance for humankind, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the then Soviet Union was the first agreement to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons delivery systems, prohibiting short-flight-time missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, which were particularly threatening to Europe. In 2014, the United States determined that a new Russian ground-launched cruise missile, the SSC-8/9M729, violated the treaty, and Washington unsuccessfully attempted to resolve the issue. The Trump administration has decided to withdraw from the treaty to develop its own noncompliant missile systems.
Why Does This Issue Matter?
Regional Security Implications for U.S. and Allied Militaries:
With NATO-Russia relations worse than at any time since the Cold War, withdrawing from the treaty without a strategy supported by allies to contest Russian coercion and restore stability in Europe poses severe political and military problems for the United States and its European allies. U.S. withdrawal will exacerbate missile proliferation in Asia without improving U.S. security in the Pacific. U.S. standing with its Asian regional allies—including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, and India—could be further reduced without a comprehensive regional security strategy that those allies support.
The Fiscal Calamity of Arms Racing After INF:
Leaving the INF Treaty will unleash a new missile competition between the United States and Russia. The U.S. nuclear weapons modernization budget is projected to cost $494 billion between 2019 and 2028, with some estimates putting the thirty-year cost at $1.7 trillion, even before adding in new intermediate-range missiles. U.S. strategic competition with Russia and China is driving military cost increases, but this competition will require long-term prioritization. Ultimately, not every need will or can be met. Both Moscow and Beijing will likely outpace any U.S. deployments of intermediate-range missiles, especially over the next decade, making an arms race unwise and costly for the United States. By preserving the INF, the United States could concentrate funding on more important U.S. priorities than unnecessary ground-launched missile systems.
Russia is violating the INF Treaty, and the United States publicly explained how.
Director for National Intelligence Dan Coats explained Russia’s efforts to conceal the violation by testing the 9M729 missile to beyond 500 kilometers from a fixed launcher, which the INF Treaty permits, and then to less than 500 kilometers from a mobile launcher, which the Treaty prohibits.1 The United States detected that the tested missiles were the same and concluded the 9M729 violates the INF Treaty.
Russia is deflecting blame from its violation by:
(a) raising questions about U.S. compliance with the treaty, alleging falsely that the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Europe has a noncompliant offensive missile capability.2
(b) exploiting the fears of U.S. allies that find the U.S. withdrawal regrettable because it raises difficult questions for them. These same allies are understandably nervous about the direction of U.S. policy after the withdrawal from the JCPOA with Iran and hints that the United States might withdraw from NATO. Russia has tried to use this discord between allies by calling for high-level diplomacy to deal with the INF problem, which European countries largely support and the United States was forced to go along with.
Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers
- Clarify the public record on Russia’s intentions and actions. The administration needs to keep the pressure and focus on Russia by testing in publicly perceivable ways whether Moscow is actually willing to return to compliance with the INF Treaty. This is critical for maintaining solidarity with European governments wary of replaying the Euromissile crisis of the early 1980s and for building support for any future U.S. offensive or defensive missile deployments.
- Develop within NATO and bilaterally with European allies a comprehensive strategy to contest and reverse Russia’s threats. NATO and other European allies must be prepared to face the threat Russia already poses to Europe and consider how best to counter the 9M729 deployments. Matching Russia missile for missile is not a smart strategy and one that NATO is unlikely to support.
- Prepare for spillover effects of the U.S. INF withdrawal among Asian allies. China and Russia will look to exploit any rift caused by the U.S. withdrawal between the United States and its Asian partners, including those concerned about China’s strength in the region. Washington should develop plans with allies to deny China and Russia opportunities to sow divisions or achieve military advantages because of the INF Treaty’s collapse.
- Do not let the consequences of the INF Treaty’s demise cascade into other agreements. Even if the INF Treaty cannot be preserved, Congress and the administration should maintain pragmatic implementation of New START, which continues to deliver important transparency and stability benefits for the United States, as the U.S. military’s continual support for New START makes clear.
Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is a serious problem, which the Trump administration is correct to highlight. However, U.S. withdrawal from the treaty without an effective strategy to focus political blame and strategic pressure on Russia, and to unify allies in Europe and Asia in a shared effort to stabilize alarming military competitions, would be counterproductive. Such stabilization may require buttressing U.S. and allied military capabilities, but deploying ground-based intermediate-range missiles after withdrawal from the INF Treaty would not be an alliance-building element of military rebalancing.
Quotes From Carnegie Endowment Nuclear Policy Program Scholars:
“Withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a lot like shutting down the government. The impulse was understandable, but the action will lead to no good outcome and a lot of wasted money.
Russia should not be allowed to get away with violating the treaty (just like the U.S. border needs to be secure). However, the United States does not need to deploy the types of missiles the treaty prohibits (much as a concrete wall is not what is needed to secure the border). Trying to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles would only blow up relations with allies in Europe and East Asia. This would advantage Russia and China.
Instead, the United States first should seriously explore recent Russian overtures to restore compliance with the treaty. If Russia persists and a military counter is required, this can be done smartly with sea-based and air-based conventionally armed systems.”
—George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“The administration’s INF Treaty withdrawal was perhaps inevitable, and the impact it has on widening U.S.-Russian strategic competition may be severe. But in the context of the president’s inability to support the U.S. Article 5 commitment to defend NATO allies in the event of an attack, the real victim is our transatlantic alliance.
The administration called out China as a key reason to withdraw, abandoning Europe to Russia and the SSC-8 threat. The administration has advanced no plan to make Europe safer now, no strategy to address the fielded missile, and no agenda for mitigating a new costly arms competition with Russia.
The administration’s INF Treaty withdrawal is yet another brick taken from security-enhancing, U.S.-built alliance structures, which have secured relative peace, advanced liberalism, and benefitted the U.S. way of life for decades.“
—Pranay Vaddi, Fellow, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
“Russia, which has violated the INF Treaty, deserves most of the blame for the collapse of this important agreement. Moscow, however, has played its hand skillfully. As a result, it is the United States, which committed the smaller sin of failing to explore creative options to save the treaty, which will likely attract the lion’s share of international criticism.”
—James Acton, Co-Director, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1 “Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Russia’s INF Treaty Violation,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, November 30, 2018, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/speeches-interviews/item/1923-director-of-national-intelligence-daniel-coats-on-russia-s-inf-treaty-violation?tmpl=component&print=1.
2 In reference to Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense sites in Europe, designed to provide missile defense against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missile threats emanating from the Middle East, as the European Phased Adaptive Approach portion of the U.S. national missile defense strategy.