The U.S. exit from the INF: causes and consequences

On December 8, 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The treaty forced the United States, Russia, and former Soviet states that had nuclear weapons at the time – Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan – to destroy any ground-launched nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles possessing ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The treaty prohibited the countries from testing, developing, and deploying missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,300 miles. On February 2, 2019, the Trump administration announced its intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Treaty, a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the foreign policy community. Now, many are asking the same question: after the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, what’s next? In order to understand this situation, we must contextualize the treaty and determine how it came to be. Then, we must examine the United States’ reasons for pulling out of the treaty and the implications for the U.S. and its allies, Russia, and the rest of the world. Finally, we must examine the impact on U.S.-Russia relations and future security and defense policy.

The creation of the INF Treaty followed a missile crisis that played out between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, the Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20 missile concerned America’s European allies because of its striking accuracy. In response to Europe’s concerns, the U.S. deployed the Pershing II ballistic missile and cruise missile into Europe, both of which could reach Moscow in 10 minutes. To prevent the further escalation of tensions, the two countries signed INF Treaty.

The Trump administration gave two reasons for exiting the INF Treaty. Firstly, the U.S. accused Russia of violating the terms of treaty. In December 2017, the State Department said Moscow violated the conditions of the treaty by developing the 9M729, an altered version of a short-range cruise missile that falls within the bounds of the INF Treaty. Washington says this altered version violates the treaty, but Moscow denies these charges. Accusations of this nature have not been one-way affairs – the Kremlin has likewise accused Washington of violating the treaty by using prohibited missiles in tests and by deploying of the Mark 41 Vertical Launch System, which is able to launch missiles of an offensive nature. The second reason is that the Trump administration has reasoned that its focus should be on countries such as China, a nonparty to the INF Treaty that continues to build up its nuclear arsenal. In recent years, U.S.-China relations have come into greater focus for U.S. administrations and, ultimately, the threat that China poses to the U.S. in the eyes of the Trump administration unnerved Washington enough to leave the INF Treaty altogether.

For the United States, the pullout from the INF Treaty signifies a shift in strategy from incentivization to ensure Russian compliance with nonproliferation under the treaty. This raises a lot of questions about what form U.S. defense policy will take in the future. As for the U.S.’s allies, especially those in NATO, there is worry that the American exit from the INF Treaty will play right into Russia’s hands by making America and its allies more exposed to Moscow’s strategy of division. Pertaining to the implications for Russia, the fact that the U.S. will not be there anymore to force Russian compliance opens the door to Moscow to begin development of land missiles.

The impact on U.S.-Russia relations is uncertain. For one, the Trump administration’s relative inconsistency on its policy toward, on arms control treaties or Trump’s coziness with Vladimir Putin in light of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, underscores how complex the dynamics are between the two countries. Ultimately, the tangible impact of the U.S. exit from the INF Treaty will come down to whether or not the U.S. and Russia can put aside their accusations of violations and actually work towards an agreement that is updated for the 21st century.

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Author: Raj Rao

Raj Rao is a staff writer at The Compass. He is a freshman in the Elliott School majoring in international affairs. Outside of writing for the Compass, he is a member of Roosevelt Institute at GW.