On Friday, August 2, the United States formally withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The U.S. signalled its intention to withdraw earlier this year, citing Russian non-compliance to its terms. Russian officials deny these accusations and have instead accused the US of withdrawing to further its own goals. Meanwhile, critics of the move are worrying that this could signify an erosion of the current global arms control atmosphere.
The collapse of the INF Treaty means that the deployment and development of short-to-medium range missile systems are no longer prohibited. American officials are already taking advantage of this. In a statement, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the Joint Force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options.” As part of this, the United States is considering deployment of medium-range conventional weapons to Asia. This comes amid tension between not only the U.S. and Russia, but also the U.S. and China, and it seems likely that deployment of weapons to the region would aim to deter the adversaries of the United States.
Initially signed in 1987, the INF Treaty was the culmination of years of discussion between the United States and the then Soviet Union. The purpose of the treaty was to reduce each nation’s stockpile of short-range and intermediate-range missile systems. Under the terms of the INF treaty, all land-based missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500km were prohibited. Any existing missiles were to be decommissioned or destroyed. This was a particularly important development at the time. Data from the Federation of American Scientists notes that in 1986, global nuclear warhead stockpiles were at a peak of 70,300. Following the signing of the INF Treaty, numbers started to rapidly decrease. While not all missile systems are meant to be used for nuclear reasons, the INF was shaped in response to this particular issue. It remained significant as one of the only treaties to completely eliminate a class of weapon. With its collapse, there are fears that it could mark the beginning of a 21st-century arms race.
The end of this landmark treaty is incredibly disappointing. For over 30 years, the INF treaty has (seemingly) worked, leading to massive reductions in nuclear-capable weapons worldwide. With both parties involved accusing the other of violations or the seeking of personal gain, it seems unlikely that there will be attempts to renegotiate the INF treaty. It had been one of the last remaining Cold War arms reduction treaties in effect. Now, the only arms reduction treaty which remains between the two countries is the New START treaty, which will be expiring in 2021. At present, there is no replacement treaty ready.
However, this does not mean there is no possibility for a new, more comprehensive arms control treaty. President Trump has already signalled a willingness to work with Russian and Chinese negotiators on a pact that would see all three of the superpowers working together. While it is currently uncertain whether this is an actual policy goal of the Trump administration, or simply the President’s personal opinion, it would be reassuring if action were taken along this line.