By: Simon Herteleer

On October 20, 2018, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; the international community received the announcement with worry – this short paper aims to shed light on the reasons and evolutions behind this development.

Background

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) resulted from a series of negotiations aimed to curtail the manufacturing of strategic nuclear weapons between the then Soviet Union and the United States of America. These negotiations were part of broader efforts to defuse tensions in the midst of the cold war and which had previously resulted in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (SALT I & II).  Whilst SALT I & II resulted in the restriction of the number of Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and their launchers – as well as submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), the INF treaty eliminated all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles and launchers with a range of anywhere between 500-5500km, increasing arms control. In total over 2600 missiles were eliminated under the INF treaty.

Discussions were held between the US and Russia concerning the universalization of the treaty under the US administration under President Bush in 2004. These discussions mainly related to changing security environments and an increasing number of nuclear capable nations worldwide, especially along the Russian borders.

In 2007 – due to the changing security environment – the idea was relaunched for the universalization of the INF Treaty so as to ensure non-signatories of the INF Treaty would not pursue the development of the weapons foreseen in the INF treaty. This would have been disadvantageous for both the United States and the Russian Federation. Russia especially feared the risk it faced of not being able to counter new missiles being developed by neighbouring countries. This proposal was  dismissed by other concerned states.

Recent Evolutions

Both sides have accused each other of violating the INF treaty, see section – compliance. This evolution has led to the adoption of an integrated strategy by the US government based on two principles: Diplomacy and Sanctions. Prior to the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, efforts were made to find a bilateral solution including during the meeting held between President Trump and President Putin held in October 2018.

Prior to the October meeting, National Security Advisor John Bolton, met with his Russian counterpart in Geneva and put forth three possibilities with regards to the INF treaty:

  • The return to compliance of Russia as foreseen in the treaty
  • The Universalization of the treaty as had already been suggested in 2007; the main issue with this proposal remained objections by other nations, such as China.
  • Leaving or terminating the treaty

In October 2018, a follow-up meeting was held between Security Advisor Bolton and President Putin. During this meeting, the Russian Federation did express a desire to continue collaborating on:

  • START
  • Iran
  • Syria

The US administration made it clear that Russia’s threat to transatlantic security remains a key priority. Continuing the collaboration, as the Russian Federation wanted was not possible given the illegal Russian occupation of Crimea. However, this stance does not mean that a closed-door policy is being applied to the Russians (see above – diplomacy & sanctions), cooperation continues for example in the field of counter-terrorism.

Compliance

For the US Government and its allies, it is a key issue that compliance with the treaty is verifiable and enforceable. The US administration made its decision to withdraw based on what itself calls sufficient evidence of non-compliance. The monitoring & evaluation mechanism applied within the INF is a deliberative process, which means that a large number of actors and parties are involved, ranging from disarmament & arms control experts to Intelligence gathering & administrative officials.

It is important to note that the treaty foresees military research but that this must be treaty compliant. Following the October withdrawal announcement by the United States, the Russian Federation has claimed that the United States is in fact in violation of the INF Treaty – including with the deployment of the Aegis Ashore Missile Defence Systems – which the US administration has refuted as evidence of violating the treaty.

The US accusation of non-compliance dating back to 2014 was based on conclusions made by an inter-agency group of US Administration officials with many senior level engagements, 2 interagency meetings as well as bilateral meetings with their Russian counterparts. All of these encounters were convened at the request of the US government. The alleged Russian breach culminated in the deployment of a renewed version of the 9k720 Iskander missiles in 2017. The missile system can be mobilized easily with launcher vehicles and are reported to have been deployed in Kaliningrad and Crimea; it has been reported to even have been deployed in Syria

The Russian Federation has equally claimed that the US government was not compliant with the treaty and they themselves denied any breach. This included the development of the NATO missile defence system and  the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which according to the US administration is only capable of launching SM-3 interceptor missiles and does therefore not violate the INF treaty in accordance to paragraph 3 of Article VII. Russia furthermore claims that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-4 violate the INF treaty, something the United States vehemently denies.

US, NATO and Russia

As was mentioned previously, the consultation process with Russian authorities has become more extensive. Foreign Ministers of NATO member states highlighted in a statement in December 2018 their preference for full compliance that is in line with US policy. Furthermore, Secretary General Stoltenberg has floated the idea to expand the INF treaty deal in an effort to save the treaty. Due to Russian non-compliance of the INF was ultimately forced to withdraw from the INF treaty, the aim is ultimately not to insight an arms race. The military response would remain proportionate to the threats, according to US government sources.