The Trump administration just announced that it will give Russia 60 days to comply with a decades-old missile treaty or the US will withdraw from it — potentially kickstarting an arms race.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced at a NATO meeting Tuesday that Moscow is in breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an arms agreement signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. The agreement prohibits Washington and Moscow from building ground-launched cruise missiles that could fly between 310 and 3,400 miles.
Both countries signed the accord to improve relations toward the end of the Cold War. However, both sides still could — and since have — built up cruise missiles that can be fired from the air or sea.
Pompeo rightfully noted that Russia has clearly violated that agreement in recent years. In 2014, the Obama administration blamed the Kremlin for testing a cruise missile in direct violation of the accord. (Russia says the US has violated the agreement too, a charge the US denies.)
And NATO foreign ministers, including Pompeo, agreed in a Tuesday joint statement for the first time “that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system … which violates the INF Treaty,” adding “it is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.”
Still, the secretary’s announcement is a softer stance than the US had previously signaled. President Donald Trump noted in October he planned to “terminate the agreement.” But German Chancellor Angela Merkel — along with her European counterparts — convinced Trump to give Moscow one last chance to comply with the accord, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
It also comes as a bit of a surprise since Trump tweeted on Monday that he would do anything, including lower defense spending, to curb the risk of an arms race with Russia (and China).
But Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to improve his missiles despite pressure from the US and Europe. In March, he even made the striking claim that Russia will soon have a nuclear-powered cruise missile that can reach the United States.
That, in part, first pushed the US to end the deal.
“Across two administrations, the United States and our allies have attempted to bring Russia back into full and verifiable compliance with INF,” a senior Trump administration official told me in October, speaking on condition of anonymity at the time to discuss sensitive talks.
“Despite our objections, Russia continues to produce and field prohibited cruise missiles and has ignored calls for transparency,” the official added.
But the administration’s argument hasn’t persuaded critics of withdrawing from the treaty.
“The US announcing that it ‘hopes’ Russia will change its behavior without offering to engage Russia directly is not a strategy,” Derek Johnson of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear weapons organization, said in an emailed statement. “It’s a gamble that jeopardizes US national security, the transatlantic partnership, and global stability.”
Experts remain divided over whether leaving the treaty is a good or bad idea. Some say leaving the treaty could lead Russia to develop more of the weapons and fuel an arms race, while others say staying in it unnecessarily handicaps America’s military prowess.
Either way, the US has given Russia an ultimatum, and it’s unclear if Putin will acquiesce.
Why the US should stay in the INF Treaty — and why it shouldn’t
Experts I spoke to in October when Trump thought seriously about withdrawing from the INF unanimously agreed that Russia has violated the agreement and that the US needed to do something about it. Where they differed, though, was over how to do that.
The answers fell into two camps: those who felt the US should try to coerce Russia into compliance with what they say is a historic and useful treaty, and those who said the US should leave the treaty entirely because it’s hurting America’s security.
Let’s take each in turn.
Why the US should stay in the INF Treaty
Having the treaty in place reduces tensions between the US and Moscow, some experts say, mostly because both countries destroyed about 2,600 ground-based cruise missiles in total along with their corresponding launchers as a result of the treaty.
That was particularly important for Washington’s allies in Europe, who were directly threatened by Russia’s stockpile. “Living in Europe, they care about INF more than anyone because they are within INF ranges,” Heather Williams, an arms control expert at King’s College in London, told me.
Experts also point out that leaving the agreement will do little to make Russia want to abide by it. “Punching out isn’t going to bring them into compliance, and now lets them justify a buildup even more while painting us as the bad guys,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT.
These are legitimate worries. It’s possible Russia could have been even more brazen in its development of ground-based cruise missiles, and that remaining a signatory in the agreement somewhat curbed Moscow’s ambitions. But if the US tears up the deal, Russia could openly and more quickly build up its arsenal — all while claiming the US made it okay to do so.
That could kick-start a new arms race between the two countries, where each side would try to one-up the other with better weaponry and grow their arsenals of ground-launched cruise missiles. That, along with other issues in the relationship, could potentially put both countries on the path to war, many worry.
There are ways to pressure Russia to comply with the agreement, experts told me. Here’s one idea from James Miller, the top Pentagon policy official from 2012 to 2014: The US should develop cruise missiles that carry nuclear weapons and can be launched at sea.
Remember: The INF treaty doesn’t prohibit the US from fielding and testing cruise missiles that can be shot from planes, ships, or submarines — only land. Increasing America’s stockpile of those other weapons, then, might pressure Moscow financially and militarily to come to the table to discuss a way to improve the accord for both sides.
But if Trump leaves the deal in 60 days, the US will lose any and all leverage with Russia on this issue.
Why the US should leave the INF Treaty
Other experts are equally passionate that leaving the agreement was long overdue. The main reason, they say, is that America should have these weapons if other countries won’t stop building them.
“[T]here was no hope of getting Moscow to return to compliance,” Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear expert at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in a blog post in October. “It doesn’t make sense for the United States to be unilaterally constrained by limits that don’t affect any other country.”
Having ground-launched cruise missiles may not actually be all that useful for combating Russia nowadays, these experts say, but they are necessary to fight off the growing military threat from China. That’s an argument that John Bolton, who became Trump’s national security adviser in April, made for years when he was a pundit outside of government.
Pompeo alluded to this in his Tuesday address: “There is no reason the United States should continue to cede this crucial military advantage to revisionist powers like China.”
The case has merit. According to a 2018 Pentagon report, Beijing has vastly improved its cruise missile arsenal, which would likely make it harder for US warships to approach the country’s coast during a fight. Experts say that puts the US at a massive disadvantage and should be promptly reversed.
Eric Sayers, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security, told me it wouldn’t be too hard to place cruise missiles on the ground near China — like in Japan or the Philippines — as long as those countries agree to it. The US could also deploy longer-range cruise missiles along China’s periphery to fend off Beijing’s ships.
What’s more, he continued, those weapons are cheaper overall than their air or sea variants because they are usually launched from trucks. Planes, ships, and submarines are complex to build and very expensive to maintain, making land-based cruise missiles a good option.
In effect, those who want the US to leave the INF Treaty say the US is missing out on a vital weapon to safeguard the country. “There’s a reason China and others have them and there’s a reason Russia is developing them,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a nuclear expert at the Hudson Institute. “Those who confidently insist we don’t need them are spitballing.”
John Bolton is dismantling global arms control
But while Bolton’s argument in this case has merit, this decision is also part of a much broader effort by the Trump administration to undo years of arms control work. It all just so happens to correlate with Bolton’s time at the White House.
Bolton has been very open about his dislike of arms control agreements for years. In his 2007 book Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, he spends dozens of pages railing against what he calls the “arms control theology” that “had been painstakingly developed during the Cold War, and kept on life support during the Clinton presidency by devotion and prayer rather than hard reality.”
It’s therefore no real surprise that the Trump administration has withdrawn from multiple arms control agreements during Bolton’s six months as national security adviser. For example, in May the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which the Obama administration put in place to constrain Tehran’s path to a nuclear weapon. But Bolton — and Trump — felt that it didn’t go far enough, and ultimately decided to pull out of the deal.
Bolton has traveled to Moscow at least twice to meet with top Russian leaders about arms control. In the first meeting, they’ve specifically discussed extending the New START nuclear treaty between the United States and Russia for another five years. That agreement came into effect on February 5, 2011, with the goal of limiting the size of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals, the two largest in the world.
At the time, three sources familiar with Bolton’s thinking told me at the time that he was “very upset” he had to discuss extending the agreement when he spoke to Putin about it. Before joining the administration, Bolton called the accord “unilateral disarmament” by the United States.
Some experts worry that if the INF dies, so will New START. Bolton, however, would likely celebrate its demise.