In the discussion about US President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the INF there are two seemingly contradictory truths. The first one lies in Russia breaching its obligations under the treaty. The second truth is that the US is making a mistake to retreat from the INF nonetheless.
An Opinion by Alexander Sorg
A historical treaty in decline
The proposed unilateral withdrawal of the US is unlikely to produce any benefits and is bound to lead to new unfavorable developments. Despite breaching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), Russia still felt obliged to at least pretend to uphold its provisions, which limited the Kremlin’s practical conduct. Leaving the INF abolishes those restraints altogether, while providing the moral high ground to the initial culprit.
Moreover, the United States has nothing to gain by escaping the restrictions of the INF with respect to Russia. There is no conceivable option to station new nuclear weapons in Europe. This leaves one possible arena: Asia. Trump, along with his National Security Advisor John Bolton, has repeatedly targeted China. However, stationing ground-launched nuclear missiles in Asia only risks a new arms race with a nuclear responsible China.
To understand the recent developments, one has to look back first. The 1987 INF for the first time obliged the two major nuclear powers, the US and Russia (back then: Soviet Union), to abolish a whole category of nuclear weapons. Supported by a thorough verification regime, the INF obliged the two states to dissolve all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. On the treaty’s deadline on June 1, 1991, both parties had together successfully eliminated 2,692 weapons. However, since 2014 the US has repeatedly accused Russia of breaching the INF by developing and deploying a missile that is noncompliant with the treaty. Many observers agree that there is a high probability that Russia has indeed violated its obligations.
While the Obama administration pressured Putin to return to full compliance, the Trump administration has followed a notably more aggressive path. After releasing a strategy to coerce Russia to compliance in 2017, the Trump administration proceeded to announce its withdrawal from the INF altogether this week. Given Trump’s seemingly euphoric stance on arms races and Bolton’s doubts on the usefulness of arms control treaties, this might have been a surprising but not unforeseeable development. However, the question remains what is to be gained from this decision. Unfortunately, the answer is: not much.
Much to lose, little to gain
Russia has put a lot of emphasis on its alleged compliance with the INF provisions. Moreover, the Kremlin tried to build up a counter-narrative that accused the United States of breaching the treaty themselves, with the installation of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and the usage of drones. For the former, Russia argues that BMD installations can be armed with offensive capabilities, while it claims for the latter that unmanned armed drones are alike ground-launched missiles. Taken together, it can be said that the Kremlin puts considerable energy in legitimising its actions with respect to the INF.
What can thus be assumed is that Russia would increase its activities once the treaty is dismantled altogether. Consequently, if Trump leaves the INF first, it would perfectly suit Russian plans, especially when considering that Russia had openly stated multiple times that it would like to leave the treaty to be able to react to China’s armament. It would put the blame on the US, while allowing Russia to do as it pleases.
And what does the United States have to gain from it? Public opinion in Europe is already strongly unfavorable towards nuclear weapons stationed in NATO member states. There is little to no chance that European allies would allow the US to station ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe, where they would be able to reach Russia. Thus, there seems to be no perceivable military or political advantage in relations to the Kremlin by retreating from the INF.
This leaves us with Trump’s favorite enemy-to-be: China. The Trump administration has confronted Peking both on its economic and military conduct. Bolton also complained about Peking’s behavior in its meeting with Putin about the INF this week. This further illustrates that the US’ announcement to leave the INF is tied to concerns about China. Unlike Europeans, US’ allies in Asia might indeed welcome the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear weapons on their territory. However, it is more than doubtful if this in any way enhances regional and global stability. Despite its more aggressive conduct in the South China Sea and towards Taiwan in recent years, China has largely maintained a remarkably non-aggressive nuclear policy. Stationing nuclear weapons in proximity to China might as well trigger a reversal of this rather positive status-quo and lead China to rethink its policies.
It is difficult to see how this could be in the interest of the US, let alone support global stability.
What remains to be said is that an announcement to withdraw from the INF is not yet an action. So far, the US administration has not officially left the treaty. If Trump does put words to deeds, he will not only weaken the disarmament agenda, but also strengthen Putin and gain little to nothing from it. On top of all of this, the US could risk a possible nuclear arms race with China, both in terms of policy and actual capabilities. While it is true that Russia started the dispute, pulling out of the INF is an astoundingly bad idea.
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Image source: Todd Diemer (via unsplash)
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