Implications of the Demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

On February 1, 2019, the United States formally suspended adherence to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, further declaring that it would fully withdraw from the treaty in six months. Russia immediately followed suit, thereby essentially eliminating one of the Cold War’s most significant arms control achievements and the foundation for the nuclear arms control treaties that followed. This article examines the causes of the demise of the INF Treaty and possible implications stemming from it.

The INF Treaty was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987, after a decade of rising nuclear tensions in Europe centered around first Soviet and then U.S. deployments of intermediate-range nuclear missiles (“intermediate” defined as having ranges of 1,000–5,500 kilometers). These systems were of great concern to both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, as the short flight times meant they were perfectly suited for offensive use in a surprise nuclear attack. Because of the inherent instability created by these weapons, both the U.S. and Soviet Union were incentivized to seek a solution to them. After years of negotiation, an agreement in principle was reached at the Reykjavik Summit in October 1986. For the first time ever, both parties agreed to eliminate all intermediate-range nuclear forces, thereby eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons. Further, each side would be allowed to enter the other’s territory to physically verify that the terms of the treaty were being adhered to. The latter, on-site inspections, were summed up with President Reagan’s usual skill with words as “trust but verify.” INF would be the model for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the follow-on New START Treaty that would impose on-site inspections and numerical limitations for strategic nuclear weapons (i.e. nuclear weapons with intercontinental ranges).

INF in some ways is a case study of the decline in U.S.-Russian relations over the past decade and a half. Starting in 2013, first the U.S. and later Russia began to publicly declare the other side was in violation of INF. Without delving into the merits of the arguments and counter-arguments, they revolve around new cruise missiles first tested by Russia in 2009 and now deployed, and around U.S. missile defenses in Europe and unmanned aerial drones. The U.S. and its European allies tried pressuring Russia to return to compliance, but this only resulted in Russia making its own counter-accusations. Clearly, remaining bound by a treaty that the other party is openly violating makes no sense. In truth, the specifics of violations are less important than changing geopolitical realities.

Russia, much weakened from Soviet days, has come to rely on nuclear weapons to compensate for its significant conventional weakness. Intermediate-range nuclear weapons are crucial for Russia to maintain flexibility in any conflict with NATO and the U.S. to the west, or against China to the east.  Russia’s nuclear doctrine has been characterized in their own words as “escalate to deescalate,” i.e., they would use a nuclear weapon in a regional conflict to demonstrate resolve, and to force an adversary to seek a resolution to the conflict that benefitted Russia, rather than risk a broader nuclear war. Strategic nuclear weapons could be used in this role, of course, but using those is far riskier in an already risky gambit. Since the mid-2000s, Russia has completely updated and modernized its nuclear forces, its violations of INF being a part of that effort. Now, it possesses a larger and more flexible nuclear force than any other nation, the U.S. included, thereby allowing it the maximum flexibility in any potential crisis.

The most obvious concern with the demise of the INF Treaty is of a renewed arms race between the U.S. and Russia. The likelihood of this is somewhat slim, however. As mentioned previously, Russia has nearly completed its nuclear modernization effort, while the U.S. is just beginning to follow suit. Numerically, the end of INF is unlikely to drive expansion in Russian and U.S. arsenals. Russia has what it wants, and there is little appetite in the United States to expand the nuclear arsenal. Qualitatively, Russia has again nearly completed its modernization. In the U.S., the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review directs an across-the-board modernization of nuclear forces primarily to counter decades of neglect and decay. New systems are being developed, but these are evolutionary rather than revolutionary in comparison to the current U.S. nuclear force.

Less often considered, but probably more important than the focus on technology and numbers, is the loss of transparency. INF and the START treaties mandated regular data exchanges of all forces covered by the respective treaties. These data exchanges provided the other side a full picture of what the other had, where they were, and what they were doing. On-site inspections merely spot-checked that data. The effect of this “perfect” knowledge of the other side led to much greater comfort with understanding them, and much less concern about the potential for surprise. Without knowledge of the other side, there may be some incentive to hedge against the unknown by expanding one’s own forces “just in case,” an action which can lead to a Thucydides Trap (also known as the security dilemma or paradox, where one side seeks to make itself safer by expanding its power, which causes the other side to do the same, creating the classic arms race). Fortunately, modern surveillance technology can overcome some of this fear of the unknown. Also, in Russia’s case, it simply cannot afford an arms race; the U.S., on the other hand, chooses not to afford one and can barely muster the political will to maintain our nuclear forces at the current levels.

The geopolitical reality, however, is that bilateral arms control is a relic of the Cold War. While the U.S. and Russia possess the most weapons at present, those numbers have declined dramatically since the early 1990s. Meanwhile, other nuclear powers have expanded their own arsenals significantly in both qualitative and quantitative ways. Future nuclear arms control will need to address this in a multilateral fashion. It will not be easy to achieve this, but a country like Russia is not going to limit itself vis a vis the U.S. while a growing nuclear power like China sits on its border, or a country like Pakistan goes from dozens to hundreds of nuclear weapons in its arsenal. This reality, which is recognized by the U.S. in the Nuclear Posture Review, is already driving the fate of New START, which is unlikely to be renewed in 2021 when it expires. New arms control efforts must look more broadly at all nuclear-armed states. It must also begin to look at non-strategic nuclear weapons, which have never been addressed by any form of arms control.

The demise of the INF Treaty recognizes geopolitical reality, but we should not lose sight of the many benefits it provided during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. INF will always remain the model of “trust but verify” arms control, which is why it and the START treaties were so much more effective than previous arms control efforts, both in the nuclear and conventional realms. With effort, its legacy could be a new era of multilateral arms control that could mitigate the slow-burning danger of a nuclear conflict in the future.