Explainer

What Does the Demise of the INF Treaty Mean for Nuclear Arms Control?

Trump’s exit from the U.S.-Russia treaty, which officially takes effect Friday, raises questions about whether the era of arms control is ending—or being reinvented.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan sign a landmark treaty eliminating U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range and shorter-range nuke missiles in Washington in December 1987.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan sign a landmark treaty eliminating U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range and shorter-range nuke missiles in Washington in December 1987. AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Friday officially terminated a longstanding U.S. nuclear treaty with Russia, potentially signaling the beginning of the end of the arms control architecture that has regulated nuclear weapons since the Cold War. 

The United States’ formal exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia raises important new questions on the future of nuclear arms control, including the fate of another major arms treaty, sparking a fierce debate among Washington policymakers. All sides agree that the United States must prevent the devastating use of a nuclear weapon, but experts are divided over how to overhaul binary Cold War-era arms controls to better fit a modern world where an increasing number of nations and nonstate actors have access to nuclear technology. 

With an estimated 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, the debate over the future of arms control is one that quite literally affects the fate of humanity. 

What is the INF Treaty and why is it ending? 

The INF Treaty is a landmark 1987 arms control treaty that eliminated an entire class of deployed nuclear-capable weapons between the United States and Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. The treaty banned ground-based missiles with a range of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers (about 300 to 3,400 miles). Brokered by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the treaty led to the destruction of 2,692 short- and intermediate-range missiles that the United States and Soviet Union otherwise would have pointed at each other. 

Trump announced in October 2018 that the United States would withdraw from the INF Treaty unless Russia took steps to comply with it. NATO backed Trump’s decision. 

The United States and its NATO allies have accused Russia for years of violating the treaty by developing and deploying a land-based cruise missile—the Novator 9M729—that is believed to have a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The Trump administration warned in February it would exit the treaty by Aug. 2 unless Russia came back into compliance. The United States has said Russia continues to violate the treaty, though Russia denies the accusations.

What happens next?

Arms control experts say the demise of the INF Treaty won’t change things overnight. “In the short term, there’s no immediate physical change after Friday. The United States and Russia are not going to begin on Saturday deploying hundreds of new missiles,” said Thomas Countryman, a former senior U.S. diplomat who worked on nonproliferation issues until he retired in 2017. 

In the medium term, the U.S. military is seeking funding and authorization to begin developing intermediate-range missiles that otherwise would have been barred by the INF Treaty. Defense officials in March said the test of one such cruise missile could begin as soon as this month and be ready for deployment within 13 months after. 

Is the United States doing the right thing by withdrawing from the INF Treaty? 

It depends who you ask. Arms control advocates say the decision increases the risk of a buildup of nuclear and conventional missiles along Russia’s border with Eastern Europe, potentially undermining Europe’s security. “We are opening up the possibility of a new arms race by destroying limitations set forth in the treaty,” said Bonnie Jenkins, a former State Department coordinator for threat reduction programs and a current advisor to the Washington-based group Foreign Policy for America.

“When [the INF Treaty] expires tomorrow, the world will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war. This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in public remarks on Thursday. 

But other experts and administration officials say there’s no point in adhering to a treaty that Russia is violating. Furthermore, these experts say, China is gaining its own advantage by developing its own intermediate-range forces to deploy in East Asia. 

Frank Klotz, a former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and head of Air Force Global Strike Command, noted that on the issue of the INF Treaty, the Trump administration was in a tight spot. Russia’s repeated violations left the United States the only party to an agreement that placed significant constraints on its ability to develop and deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles, while other powers, such as China, were able to build up a significant arsenal of these weapons. 

“What do you do with a party that has entered into an agreement and is violating its obligations under that? Do you continue to stay in the treaty … while one side is not following or abiding by it, or do you withdraw from the treaty?” Klotz said at an event on Monday hosted by the Arms Control Association. 

“We’ll have to develop those weapons, unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say, ‘Let’s really get smart, and let’s none of us develop those weapons,’” Trump said in October 2018. “If Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it, and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable.”

Where do U.S. allies stand on this?

While NATO allies backed the U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty, many are uneasy about the long-term knock-on effects of losing a key Cold War-era arms control treaty. It leaves NATO in the delicate position of bolstering its defenses against Russia’s new missiles—which can target Western European cities—without provoking an arms race.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance wouldn’t seek to copy the Russian deployments by fielding its own land-based nuclear missiles. Instead, it will strengthen missile defenses, increase training, and involve aircraft and ships that can carry nuclear missiles in exercises. In addition, NATO will gradually roll out steps to strengthen the alliance’s northeastern flank—Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—including stationing four battalion-sized battlegroups there. 

The U.S. military is also readying previously banned missiles for potential deployment in both Europe and the Pacific, but it remains to be seen whether any allies would agree to host the missiles. 

“It’s not clear which countries in Europe would want to host these [missiles], and it’s not clear that the NATO allies are excited about replaying the 1980s and being the main entree on the table as the U.S. and Russians argue about the menu,” Countryman said.

What does the end of the INF Treaty mean for other arms control treaties?

The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty raises questions about the fate of another key arms control agreement, New START, a deal signed by U.S. and Russian presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010 that caps the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces. 

The treaty, which was aimed at slashing both sides’ nuclear arsenals by a third, limits each side to no more than 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers; no more than 1,550 deployed warheads; and 800 deployed and nondeployed launchers. The treaty will expire in 2021 unless both sides agree to extend it. 

Arms control advocates are warning that the termination of both the INF Treaty and New START would shake the pillars of arms control and potentially provoke a new nuclear arms race. 

“The Trump administration’s shredding of the INF Treaty underscores the need to extend the New START Treaty,” said Andrew Albertson, the executive director of Foreign Policy for America. “[I]f it too is allowed to expire, it would be the first time there are no arms control agreements between the world’s two largest nuclear powers since 1972.”

What are Trump’s views on New START?

Trump has not explicitly said one way or the other whether he will allow New START to expire, but some top administration officials have already signaled they do not support it in its current form. 

Trump has indicated he wants to replace New START with a three-way nuclear weapons treaty that would include China, but experts are skeptical Beijing would agree to negotiate such a deal since it has a far smaller nuclear arsenal than either Washington or Moscow.

Some skeptics of New START in its current form point to advancing technologies related to nuclear weapons and argue the treaty needs to be amended to address them. For example, Russia is developing hypersonic missiles, nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and underwater drones capable of carrying nuclear weapons, according to Matthew Kroenig, a defense expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“They’re building new strategic systems that were not even imagined when New START was first negotiated. So we need to have a tough conversation with them on whether these things are included or not … before extending,” Kroenig said.

In a speech on Tuesday, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton characterized New START as “flawed from the beginning.” He said: “Why extend a flawed system just to say you have a treaty?” 

Despite Bolton’s skepticism of the pact, the Trump administration dispatched diplomats last month to Geneva to conduct talks with Russian counterparts on possibly extending New START. 

What sets apart New START from other arms control treaties?

For starters, New START deals with the United States’ and Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenals, weapons that generally have much larger yields and are designed to hit major long-range targets, as opposed to tactical nuclear weapons. 

Unlike the INF Treaty, experts widely agree that Moscow is complying with New START, and experts say verification measures taken by both sides provide critical insight into Russia’s nuclear activity. 

“We have a bilat[eral] verification process that includes notifications by each country each time they move a weapon, and it includes on-site inspection, which is something rather rare in the international arena,” Countryman said of the New START treaty. “We go to each other’s nuclear sites and verify the warhead count. These are things that would simply go away” if the treaty expired. 

Through its verification provisions, including data exchanges, routine notifications, and onsite inspections, the treaty also allows the United States to gain critical insights into the size and capabilities of Russia’s nuclear arsenal “beyond that provided by more traditional intelligence collection and assessment methods,” Klotz said.

Klotz also said that New START has broad support among senior U.S. military leaders, because it reduces long-term uncertainty about Russia’s nuclear capabilities. “To the extent that you reduce that uncertainty, you reduce part of the incentive for large-scale buildups of nuclear capabilities,” he said. 

Where does Russia stand on New START?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Moscow is interested in extending the deal and warned that letting the deal expire could spark a new arms race. “If we don’t keep this ‘fiery dragon’ under control, if we let it out of the bottle—God forbid—this could lead to global catastrophe,” Putin said at an international economic forum in June. “There won’t be any instruments at all limiting an arms race, for example, the deployment of weapons in space. This means that nuclear weapons will be hanging over every one of us all the time.”

But he also said Russia would let the pact lapse if the United States didn’t show an interest in renewing it: “If no one feels like extending the agreement—New START—well, we won’t do it then.”

What about Congress?

Nearly all Democrats in the U.S. Congress support the extension of New START. With Republicans, it’s a mixed bag. Some prominent Republican lawmakers, such as Sens. Tom Cotton and John Cornyn, are critical of New START and in May introduced legislation that would block funding on extending the treaty unless it expands to include China and cover more of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. 

Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, who introduced companion legislation in the House that month, said at the time that “America deserves better than a mere New START extension.” She added: “Since agreeing to this treaty, Russia has modernized its nuclear arsenal, and an unrestricted China has taken advantage of the opportunity to do the same and more.”

Other Republicans, including Sen. Todd Young, have urged the administration to extend New START. Young and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen introduced legislation on Thursday to extend the treaty absent a new treaty or new evidence Russia is violating New START. “This treaty is set to expire in 2021, and as renewing this treaty is debated, we must approach the decision with our eyes wide open to how the threats from nuclear weapons have evolved since the first New START,” Young said in a statement. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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