This op-ed originally appeared in The Nation, Feb. 8, 2019.
Ostensibly, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, announced on February 1, is intended to coerce Russia into admitting that it has violated the accord and then to destroy any weapons so identified. But the closer one looks, the more obvious it becomes that administration hawks, led by National Security Adviser John Bolton, have no interest in preserving the arms-control agreement but rather seek to embark on an arms race with Russia and China—a dynamic that will take us into dangerous territory not visited since the Cold War.
According to the INF Treaty, “intermediate-range nuclear forces” are nuclear-capable ballistic or cruise missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or approximately 310 to 3,400 miles. These can be fired from ships, submarines, planes, or ground-based launchers; the treaty, however, covers the land-based variants only. When it was signed in 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union had deployed some 1,293 of these weapons, mostly in Europe.
In the early 1980s, when these weapons were first deployed, both sides feared the outbreak of a ground war in Europe involving thousands of tanks and possibly millions of soldiers. Rather than risk defeat in such an epic encounter, both the United States and the Soviet Union planned for the early use of so-called “tactical” or “theater” nuclear weapons to wipe out their opponents’ conventional forces. Almost everyone assumed, however, that any use of nuclear arms would instantly trigger the use of “strategic” nukes targeted at the two superpowers’ homelands, resulting, inevitably, in mutual annihilation. As this nightmarish reality sank in, massive antinuclear protests erupted across Europe and the United States, including one in New York’s Central Park attended by nearly 1 million people.
With antinuclear fervor rising, US and Soviet leaders began negotiations to reduce the risks of escalation. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev reached agreement on a novel and sweeping solution: the elimination of all ground-launched theater nuclear weapons in the ranges indicated above. With that decision, the two sides essentially “decoupled” conventional ground combat from the onset of nuclear war, greatly reducing the risk of Armageddon.
Once the treaty went into force in 1988, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed 2,692 nuclear delivery systems—the first time an entire class of such weapons had been eliminated. In recent years, however, Russia has deployed a nuclear-capable ground-launched ballistic missile, the 9M729, that Washington insists has a range in excess of 500 kilometers; after first denying possession of such a missile, Moscow now acknowledges it but says it does not violate INF restrictions. Meanwhile, Russia insists that US MK 41 antimissile batteries deployed in Romania—supposedly to shoot down Iranian missiles aimed at Europe—could be used to launch an offensive ballistic-missile attack on Russia. Efforts to resolve these contending charges through negotiations have proved fruitless.
In announcing the decision to withdraw entirely from the INF Treaty in six months, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed the administration’s goal was to force Moscow into compliance: Destroy all 9M729s, he said, and Washington would reconsider. Absent that, he added, the United States would be forced to acquire similar weapons. On February 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied violating the INF Treaty and announced Moscow’s own intent to withdraw from it.
The Trump administration’s concerns over the 9M729 could be allayed by calm, professional diplomatic talks with Moscow. Inspections could determine if both the 9M729 and the MK 41 do, in fact, violate the INF Treaty; if so, measures could be taken to bring both countries into compliance. However, it is clear from the talk at the Pentagon and in industry circles that Bolton and company are not interested in promoting European security, but rather in developing and deploying US weapons to be aimed at China as well as Russia.
Many American military analysts fear that China—which was not a signatory to the INF Treaty—has acquired a stockpile of conventionally armed ballistic missiles that put US carrier battle groups and other military assets at risk. The answer, the hawks say, isn’t fresh negotiations with both Russia and China to devise a trilateral treaty, but rather the deployment of new US missiles aimed at those Chinese capabilities. But the US already possesses more than enough weapons of this type—air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, for example—to deter Russian and Chinese attacks, and the acquisition of new US missiles will only spark an arms race that puts this country (and our Asian and European allies) at greater risk. Support should be voiced for the Prevention of Arms Race Act, introduced by 11 Senate Democrats (including several presidential hopefuls), which prohibits the allocation of funds for any new INF-noncompliant missiles unless stringent preconditions have been met.
It is also vital to remember why such weapons were banned in the first place: They provide an easy bridge from conventional to nuclear war. Should the United States deploy hundreds of ballistic missiles in Europe and Asia aimed at Russian and Chinese territory, Moscow and Beijing would almost certainly expand their nuclear arsenals and could even adopt a launch-on-warning policy. By precipitating a new arms race in intermediate-range weapons, the Trump administration is returning us to the early 1980s, when any military clash between the major powers—intended or not—could rapidly escalate into a thermonuclear conflagration. The only adequate response to this peril, as in that earlier dangerous era, is a massive antinuclear mobilization.