Renegotiating the INF Treaty

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Under the treaty the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to destroy their ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometres. The treaty also prohibited the development and testing of such missiles, and any structure or equipment necessary to launch them.

The INF Treaty is the only agreement between two nations that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons and, until recently, has been considered a success. Today, many US officials raise doubts about the benefits of keeping the treaty alive. The United States accuses Russia of violating INF, while the Kremlin denies any wrongdoing and expresses its own concerns about US behaviour.

Preserving the treaty as it is might only be a temporary solution, while tearing it apart could lead to a security dilemma in the European theatre and further destabilise relations between the US and Russia. Yet renegotiating the treaty could favourably impact the non-proliferation regime and avoid an arms race. Any such effort should address: suspicions about both sides’ military developments; the possibility of a multilateral approach to the treaty; and new technological developments.

Certainly, the crux of the matter is addressing the issues of potential violations and security concerns. The United States accuses Russia of developing and testing INF range ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM). If these allegations are true, Moscow could be pursuing a bargaining chip to leverage a reduction in NATO’s troops and missile defence systems close to its borders. Specifically, Moscow sees the Aegis Ashore missile defence systems in Romania and Poland (2018) as potentially violating INF. For NATO, Russia’s deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander systems in Kaliningrad is a further security risk.

Dialogue will be necessary to resolve these concerns, and each side will need to verify that it is content with the resolution. Negotiating on-site inspections would be helpful here; they could also provide a basis for additional confidence-building measures that could help reduce the risk of a GLCM arms race in Europe.

Secondly, multilateralisation should be discussed. The first step will be engaging China. It is certainly not an easy task, since China’s neighbours, most notably India, will not be bound by any treaty to develop their intermediate-range missiles. However, the treaty will be beneficial for China’s long-term national interests. By creating a multi-stakeholder arms control agreement, Beijing will have a guarantee that neither the US nor Russia will deploy GLCMs in Asia. In absence of Chinese participation, Russia will not likely to agree to a new treaty due to its security concerns in the Far East. In this case, potential sites of GLCMs in that region can be discussed. Engaging other relevant states, such as India and Pakistan, will be more challenging, and can only happen if China signals its willingness to be a part of the process.

In addition to GLCMs, both states can discuss expanding the scope of the treaty to nuclear capable air- and sea-based intermediate range missiles. Examining other capabilities can reduce tensions through increasing transparency. Another technological development to examine is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This capability was not considered in 1987. Russian officials raise questions about US developments in this field and it will not be easy to avoid this discussion. Better clarification of the difference and similarities between cruise missiles and evolving drone technologies can fill the gaps in the existing treaty.

There are many challenges to creating a new agreement. If allegations about Russia are correct, it will not likely alter its programs unless it can gain major concessions in return. In 1987, the Soviet Union could not afford to keep up with the arms race as its economy was gradually crumbling; the American Pershing II was more advanced than the Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer. Today, Russia possesses strong military capabilities and there are more players to consider.

The internal political situation in the United States might also be an obstacle to the future of arms control agreements with Russia. The current administration does not appear to favour limits on its military expenditure, but rather increases to it. Moreover, due to the suspected Russian involvement with the 2016 Presidential elections, any move towards negotiations right now might look as a proof of Russian government aiding the current administration and, in fact, hinder broader trust rather than facilitate it. It will not be easy to build a cohesive agenda for the negotiations in such unfavourable environment.

The INF Treaty can and should be re-evaluated. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty can have both political and military implications. Agreements such as the INF Treaty stabilize relations between superpowers, manage their nuclear stockpiles, and provide better transparency. By considering the security perceptions of the US and Russia to address suspicion and violation accusations; assessing the potential for a multilateral expansion; and discussing the inclusion of new technologies, the INF treaty can be saved.

Anna Wagner holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. She recently completed her research internship in Brookhaven National Laboratory where she focused on nuclear security and bilateral arms control.

Banner image: Reagan and Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty, 1987. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,

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