The U.S. and Russia entered into uncharted territory Friday with the official demise of a landmark Reagan-era missile pact as the Trump administration wagers it can craft a new, more sweeping 21st-century weapons deal that also will also place unprecedented limits on China.
With the formal expiration of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty this week, missile systems that had been outlawed since 1987 will suddenly become legal under international law, sparking new fears of an arms race at a time when hypersonic missile technology makes such weapons more dangerous than ever.
The INF agreement prohibited the U.S. and the Soviet Union from developing “tactical” missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,400 miles — specific restrictions meant to reduce the chances of the two sides launching attacks from European bases across the Cold War divide between the two blocs.
President Trump announced six months ago that he would scrap the deal, citing complaints dating back to the Obama administration that Moscow was cheating on the deal. Now that the formal end of the agreement has arrived, specialists argue over whether the U.S. has made a potentially deadly miscalculation in walking away.
Mr. Trump’s supporters argue that the treaty had become “a joke” and that Mr. Trump was right to abandon a deal that Moscow had disregarded. The U.S., its European allies and international watchdogs all contend that Russia for years has been building weapons that technically violate the deal, specifically with the deployment of a new limited-range cruise missile.
“This was a one-way street and it has been for a long time,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, Idaho Republican. “How long [the Russians have] been cheating probably is classified, but now it’s an open source that they’ve been cheating for a long, long time.”
But critics fault the Trump administration for tearing up one imperfect deal without planning for what comes next.
“The death of the INF Treaty, without any plan in evidence to compensate for the deterioration of arms control, will only accelerate our downward spiral into nuclear chaos and potential catastrophe,” warns Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a former National Security Council official during the Obama administration.
A different era
Both supporters and opponents of the U.S. move acknowledge that the INF Treaty was crafted for a very different era. The treaty, arms experts say, has become far less relevant in today’s geopolitical environment, given the rising military might of China, which was not even included in the treaty’s ban on mid-range missiles.
But it’s unclear exactly how Mr. Trump will handle the situation moving forward. The White House contends it can undertake a brand new version of the INF that also includes China, despite little sign that Beijing is interested in coming to the table.
“I do think there’s a growing recognition that the future of arms control is the U.S., China, Russia, and meaningful arms control isn’t going to happen until all three countries are engaged in that process,” said James Carafano, a leading national security and foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Nobody thinks that’s going to happen anytime soon,” he concluded.
Even before the deal officially ended, the consequences of the INF’s demise became clear. In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his country would immediately begin production on a mid-range hypersonic missile. The weapon would have been banned under the INF.
Both Russia and China are increasingly focused on hypersonic weapons, which can travel at five times the speed of sound and which U.S. military officials warn are capable of evading most modern missile defense systems.
The end of the INF and the rampant expansion of hypersonic weapons are just two pieces of an increasingly dangerous global weapons landscape, analysts say. The U.S.-Russia New START treaty — which limits the number of nuclear weapons in both the American and Russian arsenals — is set to expire in 2021, and there are growing fears that the administration, with longtime arms treaty skeptic John Bolton Mr. Trump’s top national security aide, may let that agreement die as well.
A world with hypersonic weapons, and without an INF or START treaty, critics say, could be prone to disastrous miscalculation and possibly all-out war.
“Without the INF Treaty, as well as the soon expiring New START, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century,” said Thomas Countryman, chairman of the board of directors at the Arms Control Association.
Divisions on the Hill
On Capitol Hill, Mr. Trump’s opponents say the decision to leave the INF, compounded by the growing belief the START deal could fall by the wayside, illustrate the White House’s failed foreign policy approach.
“It’s another disastrous Trump decision that will lead us to an arms race. Russia is more than ready and willing to go ahead and invest significantly in increasing in its arms sophistication and its arsenal,” Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Washington Times Thursday. “The INF treaty, I think, is critical to be followed on and they could have extended it without necessarily going ahead and renegotiating a new one.”
Republicans counter that the INF had become essentially useless, that Russia is to blame for its failure and that it was time to move on.
“Going forward, political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic must engage with their citizens to preserve that unity amid Russia’s ongoing attempts to rewrite the history of the treaty’s demise through propaganda and disinformation,” Mr. Risch and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said in a joint statement. “The United States and our NATO allies are also resolved to take the necessary steps to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of NATO’s deterrence and defense posture in a post-INF environment.”
The two lawmakers said NATO leaders should focus on how to counter the new Russian missiles and plot the way forward at the alliance’s planned December summit.
“While tomorrow marks the end of one treaty, it does not mark the end of arms control or nonproliferation efforts,” Mr. Risch and Mr. Inhofe said. “The United States will continue to uphold current treaty commitments and remain open to supporting new frameworks that enhance international security.”
Privately, some military insiders say they’re still hopeful Mr. Trump the dealmaker will seek a grand weapons deal including the U.S., Russia, and China. Such a deal could, in theory, cover both mid-range weapons and hypersonic missiles.
But that approach would likely run into problems on multiple fronts.
For starters, China has shown little interest in signing up for a deal limiting its mid-range weapons, saying its own nuclear arsenal is tiny compared to those of the U.S. and Russia. U.S. military officials estimate that China has more than 2,500 missiles that would violate the INF, and there’s been no indication Beijing would be willing to give them up as it seeks to exert more influence over the Pacific region.
“China will in no way agree to making the INF Treaty multilateral,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a press briefing this week, even while criticizing the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the deal.
“The national defense policies China follows are defensive in nature,” Mr. Hua contended. “The true purpose of the United States pulling out of the treaty is to avoid its bounden duties.”
More broadly, the near-term hopes of a multilateral deal to limit hypersonic weapons, analysts say, is a pipe dream.
“It’s very unusual at the front end of an emerging technology that has a competitive advantage for people to jump into an arms-control agreement. Historically, that just doesn’t happen,” Mr. Carafano said.
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.