In yet another of many disruptive foreign policy initiatives that US President Donald Trump has taken since coming to power, he announced on October 20, 2018 of US withdrawal from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia, a decades-old agreement signed on December 8, 1987 by former President Ronald Reagan and former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. The argument that Trump offered in defence of his decision was that Russia has been violating the agreement for many years. Trump even went further in accusing his predecessor Barack Obama for not taking any action on Russia for not honouring the agreement and decided to terminate the agreement.
What obligations the treaty put on the two parties when it was signed and what implications would it mean in abrogating now? The landmark treaty that came into force after signing in 1987 obliged both countries to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between approximately 300 and 3,400 miles. It was successful in eliminating nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles from both sides altogether. It offered a blanket of protection to the US’ European allies and marked a watershed agreement between the two nations at the centre of the arms race during the Cold War.
Trump now accuses that Russia has violated the treaty, pointing that even the predecessor Obama administration had in 2014 accused Russia of violating the INF treaty, citing cruise missile tests dating to 2008. At that time, the US had informed its NATO allies of Russia’s suspected breach. The NATO opinion was articulated in early October 2018 by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of Russia’s lack of respect for its international commitments, including the INF treaty. The Nuclear Posture Review published by the US Defence Department also observed in February that Russia “continues to violate a series of arms control treaties and commitments”.
Reactions of China
Interestingly, China that could itself be a beneficiary of the Trump decision strongly opposed this unilateral decision by the US to pull out of the treaty, saying that the “wrong” move will have a negative impact on the world. Beijing was miffed that Trump hinted China as a possible another reason, though China was not a party to the treaty. What Washington felt was that restriction on developing these missiles will put it at a disadvantage in the face of growing rivalry with Beijing.
China saw Trump’s decision to annul the INF treaty as a meaning of blackmailing Beijing. Not surprisingly, Beijing warned the US that it would “never accept any form of blackmail” if Washington has any intention to link its decision to pull out of the INF treaty with Russia to China’s arsenal. Trump’s accusations of China as a party to the violations along with Russia and followed by the threat of building up its own nuclear arsenal “until people come to their senses” drew sharp response and condemnation from Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reacted by terming the US action as “utterly unjustifiable and unreasonable”. She also warned that Beijing would “never accept any form of blackmail”.
It seems that China has been caught in the US-Russia crossfire with apparently the larger prism of US-China problems, which is why Trump is also targeting Beijing with violation accusations. In recent years, both Moscow and Washington have often accused each other of violating the agreement within the treaty. Late in 2017, Russia accused the US of violating the treaty, arguing that the missile defense system in Romania – also planned for deployment in Poland later in 2018 – could launch Tomahawk medium-range missiles apart from interceptor missiles. Also in May 2018, the Russian defence ministry said that the US produced a series of target missiles.
Fear of Arms Race
The question that arises is, is pulling out of the treaty by the US the right answer to make Russia mend its ways, if at all? Experts warn that putting the Reykjavik INF deal to the dustbin of history could provoke a dangerous arms race across Europe, something unfolding during 1980 but was eventually averted by the INF. The INF treaty helped cool Cold War tensions and anxiety about nuclear annihilation but accusing Russia now of cheating on the INF could encourage China to continue in building its own medium range missiles, thus nullifying Trump’s intention to punish Russia. Others would not be expected to wait to join in this new arms race.
The overwhelming opinion emerging across continent is that Trump is blundering, setting the path for an arms race. Though the US can outspend Russia and China on nuclear weapons, it does not mean that it could eventually win. Trump might boast to have the bigger leverage by pulling out of the 19876 INF treaty but it would be inadvisable to compare that the world situation now as it is dramatically much different than what it was in the 1980s. When then Reagan boasted the US to remain ahead of any other nation in amassing nuclear arsenal and never accept second place, he was trying to prove a point that the dynamic success of capitalism shall triumph over communism based on money power. He wrote in his memoir, An American Life, thus: “The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever”. Though Trump echoed Reagan’s description of his stance in the early 1980s, the situation now is not the same and as such comparison may not be appropriate.
Though the US outspends over Russia on the military, Russia has paid special attention to its nuclear forces, most recently with a major rearmament program, to compensate for the relative weakness of its conventional forces. The nuclear deterrent is relatively more potent in the Russian strategy than for the US and therefore comparison between the two could be wrong. If the US kills the INF treaty, Russian military strategy could be altered wherein Russia is likely to drop relatively expensive efforts to get around it by producing sea-and air-launched intermediate-range weapons and focus on cheaper mobile land-based launchers. This time Trump’s challenge shall be twosome as Russia and China, both equally equipped militarily, could throw potent challenge to the US. If Trump of today resembles Reagan of the 1980s, then Putin and Xi Jinping today could jointly resemble Gorbachev of the 1980s.
In modern times, diplomacy as a powerful tool has greater relevance that it was ever before as the world has become more dangerous with many countries are armed with devastating weapons capable to cause heavy damage to humanity. The time when the US was the only country in possession of nuclear weapons had the freedom to decide whether to use them or not and it decided to use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now with many countries in possession of such nuclear weapons, the US cannot have such luxury, which is what has made the world a safer place for the past over seven decades and a nuclear war has been averted. Trump would be expected to factor such argument in conducting diplomacy.
There are several views, either supporting or opposing and sometimes conflicting on Trump’s decision to pullout from the INF. Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky, an opinion columnist covering European politics and business, observes that Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear treaty could hurt US allies the hardest. According to him, Germany has more to lose than Russia. He says that ditching the INF would be a clear advantage for both Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin but would be a problem for countries in the middle and can impact the treaty-based global order. Bershidsky cites Columbia University professor Stephen Sestanovich, who served as senior director for policy development at the U.S. National Security Council from 1984 to 1987, the year the INF Treaty was signed, saying the deal as “the most one-sidedly good arms-control agreement any U.S. President has ever signed.” He says it eliminated 1,752 Soviet missiles, including all the feared SS-20s aimed at the European allies of the US, along with 859 less powerful US missiles deployed in Europe to counter the threat. By the time Soviet President Gorbachev unexpectedly agreed to the trade-off, the Soviet economy was faltering and Gorbachev was intent on ending the arms race with the US. The truism is that the deal was not really so one-sided: The Soviet leadership was spooked by the Pershing II missiles the US had deployed in Germany, which were far more precise than the SS-20s.
When Gorbachev agreed to sign the treaty, he was protecting the USSR from a possible Western strike on Moscow as the Pershing II deployed in Germany could reach in about 10 minutes. On the other hand, Reagan was ensuring that the SS-20 threat got rid of and that the uneasiness of European allies are assuaged. At a time when USSR was suspected of taking countermeasures, China not bound by the Reagan-Gorbachev deal was free to deploy short- and medium-range missiles, creating a potential threat to US allies in Asia. Russia was seized of this anomaly that China was free of treaty’s constraints as it was not a party to it.
When the US and Russia continue to weigh who lost or gained what by Trump’s decision, the countries that lose are the ones caught in the middle. While the UK response was rather mute, Germany would not rejoice a possible repeat of the mass demonstrations that rocked the country when the Pershing IIs were deployed, which is why it expressed regret about the US decision to abandon “an important element of arms control that especially serves European interests”.
There could be other fallouts as well. While the European members of the NATO look to work for a security system that is less dependent on the US, the US allies in Asia are likely to ponder if this is the right time to challenge China and Russia by US decision to exit the INF treaty. If Trump’s intention to withdraw from the treaty was to induce Russia and China not to develop new weapons and was thus the ultimate goal, Trump could have worked to make “the treaty multilateral and negotiate additional provisions covering specific Chinese, Russian and, inevitably also U.S. weapons programs”.
Hal Brands offers a different perspective. According to him, Trump could have taken the dual-track approach used by Carter and Reagan in the lead-up to the INF: working with allies to design and deploy medium-range missiles, while negotiating with Russia to stop cheating and China to join the pact. The process of diplomacy in achieving this goal could have been long drawn but that could have a better alternative than just to kill the treaty. Just walking away from the treaty would hurt the US as much as any other country. Therefore, Trump’s could have been the right in seeing that the Cold War-era pact no longer suits American interests but simply walking away could be the wrong approach as it is unlikely to improve US’ competitive position. As with many earlier decisions taken by Trump that have proved to be counterproductive, declaring his intention to terminate a key arms-control treaty with Russia would be as yet another self-inflicted wound.
If Trump finally decides to withdraw from the treaty, the US will invite criticism, not Russia, that it is destroying a landmark arms-control agreement. It will alienate NATO allies and could make them feel uncomfortable if NATO-Russia tensions escalate.
There is yet another view offered by Eli Lake who disagrees and suggests the US will have more leverage by simply ditching the INF now. According to Lake, Russia was not honouring it and China is not even a party to it and so killing it now is a better option than to retain with loopholes exploited by Russia. But Russia says that Trump’s decision to dump the INF treaty will bring the world closer to the nuclear apocalypse.
The INF treaty worked for 21 years. Both sides abided in the beginning by the treaty agreement. Trouble started in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia. The US saw this cheating on the part of Russia. In retaliation, Russia began testing “a ground-launched cruise missile that flies to ranges banned by the treaty” and continued further, posing a threat to NATO allies. Trump, according to Lake, had two choices: continue to what Obama administration did – shame the Russians into compliance – and seek to renegotiate or withdraw from the pact, which he announced now. There could be no single opinion on Trump’s act and whether it was the right or wrong choice is difficult to say.
The decision to kill the pact comes at a time, writes James Stavridis, when the US and NATO are about to launch major war games in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea, partly to counter Russia’s scary build-up in the small but important province of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. As the risk of confrontation grows, anxiety is palpable. Under the circumstance, it would have been prudent on the part of Trump to make efforts to renegotiate the treaty and bring in China into the new pact as almost 95 per cent of China’s missiles would be prohibited by the new INF treaty. Seen from this larger perspective, Trump’s withdrawal decision is a dangerous gamble fraught with possible unintended consequences.