I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire: Abandoning the INF Treaty Could Spark a Global Arms Race
After days of anticipation, President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Range Forces (INF) treaty on 1 February 2019. Russia’s production of new missiles in violation of the terms of the treaty was cited as the primary reason for the withdrawal. Moscow dismissed the allegations and responded by abandoning the treaty as well. The U.S.’ dissatisfaction with the treaty due to restrictions on the independent development and deployment of missiles was not hidden. Many critics suggest that changes in global power politics and the rise in military and nuclear power of countries like North Korea and China are the real reason for the U.S.’ withdrawal from the treaty.
The terms of the treaty require a six-month notice before the countries’ complete withdrawal. Therefore, the announcements only pave the way for an eventual withdrawal of the two countries from the treaty. NATO backed the U.S. findings and decision by expressing their agreement regarding Russia’s violations and stating that Russia should use the remaining period to return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty, failing which it would bear sole responsibility for the treaty’s failure.
About the INF treaty
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty was signed between the U.S. and Russian governments in 1987. It prohibits the production, possession and/or testing of missiles (and their ground-based launchers) that possess a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Such weapons could reach their targets within minutes. The treaty’s signing led to the destruction of about 800 U.S. and 1800 Russian missiles between 1988 and 1991. Such missiles had previously been deployed in the European region for use during conflicts. It was a significant move for the security of Europe amidst the closing stages of the Cold War and has served to limit the arms race in that region.
Reasons, allegations and denials
For years, the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty with the development and deployment of a treaty-prohibited missile system. Russia has continued to deny the allegations and has invited U.S. officials to examine their missile systems and verify the specifications for themselves. The latest such invitation took place at a meeting in Geneva on 15 January. The U.S. has repeatedly declined the invitations, claiming that an inspection of the systems would not help confirm the distance that the missiles can travel. Moscow has been requested to prove their compliance with the treaty terms through actions that can be confirmed – namely, the verifiable destruction of the non-compliant systems in question.
Moscow has also, over the years, accused the U.S. of violating terms of the treaty with the deployment of certain missile systems in Europe. The U.S. has denied all such allegations and claimed they remain in compliance with all terms of the treaty.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. government had complained over 30 times and that “Russia’s violation puts millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk, it aims to put the United States at a military disadvantage, and it undercuts the chances of moving our bilateral relationship in a better direction. … When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so openly threatened, we must respond.” President Vladimir Putin promised a ‘tit-for-tat’ response from Russia, announcing Moscow’s retaliatory abandonment of the treaty. He also stated that Russia would start working on advance systems, but their deployment would depend on the actions of the U.S. The U.S. and Russia are both expected to work on new missile systems with advanced capabilities after successful withdrawal from the treaty.
The U.S. has also criticized the exclusion of countries like China, which continues developing and producing its own missile systems, from the treaty. Officials highlight that this exclusion has enabled China, particularly, to gain significant military advantage in Asia and to produce and deploy multiple missile systems that do not comply with the INF treaty restrictions. U.S. officials claim that China would be accountable for over 1,000 deployed missiles if it were a signatory. The U.S. would prefer a multilateral treaty which includes other countries as well. President Donald Trump has also vented his frustrations over the fact that the U.S. is the only country bound by such treaties. Commentators perceive the abandonment of the treaty to be motivated by U.S.’ desire to break free from restrictions on military expansion in response to emerging threats from countries like North Korea and China.
The successful withdrawal of the two countries from the treaty is likely to lead to the revival of an arms race between them. This may result in a domino effect, as other nations begin to stockpile weapons of their own, leading to a global arms race. This would only deteriorate the global political situation and, this time, would not be restricted to the European continent, involving Asian countries in the risk and the race as well.
A bilateral agreement between Russia and the U.S. within the next six months seems the best way to maintain international peace and security and preserve the legacy of the INF treaty. A multilateral treaty including other countries seems a rather difficult feat but may not be entirely impossible. Such a treaty would indeed help limit the production and deployment of missiles across the globe, thereby contributing to the alleviation of U.S. concerns over the rise of China. Therefore, the initiation of talks for a multilateral treaty developing on the INF treaty could be a globally advantageous step towards curbing nuclear and military expansion.
It is necessary to abide by landmark treaties such as the INF treaty to maintain global security and prevent any rise in global tension. Diplomacy will serve as an important tool to save the relations between the two nations and prevent the elimination of the treaty altogether.
Anant Saria is a freelance writer with interests in International Security and Human Rights. He is an undergraduate with a major in Journalism and will be pursuing a Masters of International Relations.