This op-ed originally appeared in Politico Magazine, Dec. 5, 2018.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Tuesday that the United States will soon “suspend” its obligations under 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—an arms-control treaty credited with helping to end the Cold War – in response to the prolonged Russian violation of the agreement. If Russia does not return to compliance in 60 days, Pompeo said, the United States will formally announce its intention to withdraw from the treaty, as President Trump declared he would do last month.
The two of us have advised President Trump in different capacities—Burt as an informal campaign adviser, and Countryman as a top State Department official in the early days of his administration. Together, we have decades of experience at the highest levels of U.S. foreign policy dealing directly with the toughest weapons-related security challenges.
While we agree the Russian violation is serious and must be addressed, terminating the agreement does nothing to convince the Kremlin to return to compliance or reverse any military advantage that its noncompliant missile might provide. Nor is it realistic, as Secretary Pompeo “hopes,” that the threat of U.S. withdrawal will convince Russia to “change course” and return to compliance with the treaty.
Why does the INF Treaty matter? The agreement effectively eliminated some 2,700 U.S. and Russian nuclear-armed missiles and prohibits an entire class of destabilizing nuclear systems that had targeted NATO and Western Russia.
Critics of the treaty, including national security adviser John Bolton, say it has outlived its usefulness and should be terminated if Russia does not return to compliance. The reality is that it continues to serve as a check on some of the most destabilizing types of nuclear weapons that the U.S. and Russia could deploy, and without the treaty, there is a serious risk of a new intermediate-range, ground-based missile arms race in Europe and beyond.
If U.S. and Russian and NATO leaders are serious about preserving the INF Treaty—and they should be—they must redouble their off-and-on diplomatic efforts to find a practical solution that resolves U.S. concerns about Russian compliance and Russia’s concerns about U.S. implementation of the treaty. Such an effort requires stronger European leadership and initiative, as it is very unlikely that either the White House or the Kremlin are in a mood to put forward realistic solutions.
In 2013, the United States determined Russia had tested a missile in a configuration that violates the treaty. After five years, the key details of the nature of the violation were publicly revealed for the first time in a Nov. 30 statement from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. “As of late 2018,” Coats said, Russia “has fielded multiple battalions of 9M729 missiles, which pose a direct conventional and nuclear threat against most of Europe and parts of Asia.”
For several years, our organizations have called upon Moscow to return to compliance with the INF Treaty. We’ve engaged with experts and officials in both the D.C. and Moscow to present real solutions that would appeal to both parties, including the potential for reciprocal inspection visits that could lead to the removal of Russia’s noncompliant missile, and to address Russian concerns that U.S. missile defense launchers in Europe could be used to launch offensive missiles. So far, U.S. or Russian leaders haven’t listened.
In a meeting in June with Russian officials, we understand that Trump administration officials apparently demanded that Russia admit its violation, exhibit the missile, and withdraw it from the field. Unfortunately, there have been no working level follow-on discussions on the option and no offer for reciprocal measures to address Russia’s concerns.
According to reports, there was no Cabinet-level interagency debate before Trump announced his INF decision last month, which would normally happen before a national security adviser would recommend withdrawal from an agreement to the president. Neither was there any serious consultation with Congress before Trump’s announcement.
And while our allies in Europe—those directly threatened by the Russian violation—had discussed the issue with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in early October, they were not formally consulted before the president announced his intention to terminate the INF Treaty on Oct. 20. Unsurprisingly, NATO allies have, with near unanimity, reiterated their view that INF is key to European security. Many have called for renewed U.S.-Russian diplomacy on the matter.
On Nov. 26 press briefing, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov reiterated Russian denials of the U.S. charges of noncompliance but said Russia is “open to any mutually beneficial proposals that take into account the interests and concerns of both parties.” It is in our interest to test whether Russia is serious about such an effort.
If President Trump does end up killing the INF Treaty without exhausting the options to bring Russia back into compliance, his Kremlin counterpart Vladimir Putin will have been granted the double victory of keeping his new ground-launched cruise missile, while being able to portray the United States as responsible for the termination of a valuable agreement and for opening the door to renewed deployment of intermediate-range missiles.
Another threat to American security—and global security—can be found in President Trump’s threat to enter a global nuclear arms race and a return to a 1960s-era nuclear posture that sought American military superiority—measured in megatons—and his failure to engage in talks designed to preserve another key treaty designed to reduce the threat of global nuclear destruction: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
New START is the latest in a series of agreements pursued by U.S. presidents of both political parties and Russian leaders that have lowered tensions, reduced the incentives for first nuclear use and spared defense budget dollars for other priorities. Its powerful inspection and verification measures provide a valuable window into Moscow’s capabilities, one that can’t be matched by the rest of American intelligence resources.
As we and other colleagues recently warned in a Nov. 7 letter to the president, if New START is allowed to expire in February 2021, there will be no numerical limits on the still massive U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972.
It doesn’t have to happen this way. Both the Congress and NATO allies must assert a voice in decisions that are life-and-death for the United States, Europe and the world. They can exert stronger pressure on Moscow to end its INF violation and reject the militarily useless path of developing, building and deploying new U.S. missiles in Europe or elsewhere. The next Congress should be also prepared to tie continued funding requests by the Trump administration to build up and modernize our nuclear arsenal (projected to cost $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years) to a decision to extend the New START agreement.
Most immediately, Trump and Putin should direct their teams to follow through on what they discussed briefly in Helsinki: the beginning of a bilateral dialogue on strategic stability, with the aim of avoiding a new arms race, pursuing a final effort to resolve the INF Treaty dispute, and beginning talks on extending New START.
With all that currently divides the United States and Russia, these two leaders have the opportunity to take a step that would reassure the world that they each understand the terrible responsibility they bear as custodians of civilization-ending weapons.