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Trump’s latest blunder: Withdrawal from the US-Russian INF Treaty
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Arms Control NOW

Authored by Greg Thielmann on October 25, 2018

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill, Oct. 25, 2018.

It appears that President Donald Trump’s hard-line security advisor, John Bolton, has persuaded him to renounce the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

At least in this case, unlike with Trump’s quixotic violation of the seven-party Iran nuclear deal, the administration can point to a treaty violation by the other party. But as a practical matter, unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the treaty is reckless and will have a similarly counterproductive and dangerous impact on U.S. national security.

Recent statements by Bolton and Defense Secretary Jim Mattissuggest that Russia’s alleged violation of the treaty, testing and deploying a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile (designated by NATO, the SSC-8), is the principal reason for the U.S. plan to withdraw. But Bolton is on record for advocating withdrawal from the INF Treaty years before Russian compliance concerns were raised. 

He argued then and now that the unconstrained cruise missile capabilities of states like China pose a threat to U.S. bases and forces in the Western Pacific, and that the U.S.-Russian treaty unnecessarily constrains U.S. military options.

In fact, the INF Treaty leaves unconstrained the U.S. deployment of nuclear- and conventionally-armed sea-based cruise missiles, as well as the deployment of nuclear- and conventionally-armed tactical aircraft outside the limits of any existing strategic arms control agreement. And with its superior air and naval forces, and its inherent geographic advantages, the United States is better positioned than either China or Russia to exercise these options.

The Soviet INF missile build-up of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 1970s led NATO to adopt the “Dual-Track Decision” in 1979 to stabilize the security threat to its European members. Despite strident threats from Moscow and significant domestic opposition in Europe to the deployment track of NATO’s decision, the five NATO countries basing the new missiles held firm. Ultimately, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to eliminate all ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km.

Unlike the reaction of U.S. allies during that period of the Cold War, there has been no call now for U.S. ground-based missile deployments in either Europe or Asia in response to INF Treaty compliance concerns with Russia. Indeed, a unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the treaty would certainly be unlikely to enhance the receptivity of America’s allies to a missile build-up. Instead it would be likely to shift blame in the international community from Moscow to Washington for the demise of the INF Treaty and the raising of tensions.

A smarter approach would be to get serious about addressing the compliance concerns raised by each side, using the Special Verification Commission (SVC) created by the treaty to be a mechanism for engaging experts in on-site inspections. The treaty obligates each party to respond to the concerns raised by the other. The SVC worked regularly through 2003 and was effective at resolving compliance issues.

In 2014, Moscow and Washington traded charges of INF Treaty noncompliance in public. But neither party was willing to go beyond high-level denials and accusations of bad faith and no meeting of the SVC was held until November 2016.

There is now a parallelism in the two most significant charges raised by the sides and, consequently, a potentially productive path for negotiators to pursue. In late 2017, after three years of accusations, Washington finally specified to Moscow the Russian military designator of the system it judged noncompliant, the 9M729. Russia subsequently acknowledged that it had developed and deployed this system, but has denied that the missile has capabilities prohibited by the treaty. It has never invited U.S. inspectors to examine the missiles.

From 2014 on, Russia has questioned the intent and capabilities of the land-based (“Aegis Ashore”) Mark 41 launcher of the U.S. SM3 missile defense interceptors scheduled for deployment in Romania and Poland, noting that they had already been tested launching BGM-109A Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles from sea-based Aegis ships. These Tomahawks are nearly identical to the BGM-109G land-attack cruise missiles banned by the INF Treaty. The Mark 41 launcher was designed for deployment on Aegis warships and promoted for its abilities to launch a variety of missiles, including land-attack and anti-ballistic missile interceptors. Yet, when the Mark 41 was moved ashore for launching missile defense systems, the United States claimed it was neither intended for nor capable of launching land-attack cruise missiles. Washington has never offered Russian experts an opportunity to examine the capabilities of the Mark 41 launchers deployed in Europe.

Ironically, the dispute is now poised to enter a more promising path – engaging technical experts under the auspices of the SVC to inspect the capabilities of the two systems. But to enter such a path requires the sides to accept reciprocal on-site inspections to examine these systems and either come to a new understanding of their capabilities or undertake measures to alter those capabilities.

It is worth recalling that the INF Treaty itself was negotiated and signed before the Soviet Union ultimately agreed – after years of denial – to tear down the Krasnoyarsk radar, which constituted a clear violation of the ABM Treaty. Once a constructive, good-faith process is underway to resolve compliance issues, the critical negotiations on new arms control measures can proceed. It is not too late.