Fears of a renewed nuclear arms race with Russia have spiked this week as the Trump administration approaches a Saturday deadline to begin officially pulling America out of a key Cold War-era weapons pact that U.S. officials say the Kremlin has flagrantly violated for years.
With last-ditch diplomatic attempts so far failing to resolve disputes over the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the administration is expected to stick to the Feb. 2 deadline for withdrawing if Russia refuses to come into compliance.
That starts a six-month clock for ending the treaty, and the U.S. government would no longer be bound by the INF’s blanket ban on the production of midrange nuclear weapons.
While the treaty’s impending collapse has alarmed arms control advocates around the world, the Trump administration’s arguments have won major support, including from NATO and from key Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“The accord is being violated by Russia,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul of Texas, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Republican, told The Washington Times on Wednesday. “There is no reason for the United States to handcuff ourselves as Russia advances their weapons system at will.”
Senate Armed Forces Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said, “It’s been 60 days since President Trump told [Russian President] Vladimir Putin to stop violating the INF Treaty, but Russia hasn’t taken any meaningful steps to come into compliance. It’s time to formally withdraw as we continue to consult with our partners. We cannot keep jeopardizing our allies, troops and infrastructure for a one-sided treaty.”
Critics say abrogating the treaty entirely represents a leap into the unknown, with Russia and other potential rivals such as China ready to respond in kind.
The expected withdrawal notice follows months of warnings from the administration that it would take action if Russia continued to deploy weapons the U.S. says is not permitted by the treaty negotiated in the waning years of the Cold War by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“We’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and do weapons and we’re not allowed to,” Mr. Trump told reporters in October. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement but Russia has not unfortunately honored the agreement.”
Stopping ‘tactical’ nukes
The goal of the pact, which permanently prohibits the U.S. and Russia from building or deploying land-based missiles and launch systems with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles, was to block the spread of so-called “tactical nukes” around the globe, particularly in Europe, in part for fear the less powerful bombs were more likely to be used in an actual shooting war.
Aside from Russia’s violations, critics of the treaty note that countries such as China and Iran are not covered by the ban on medium-range missiles.
It was the Obama administration that first accused Moscow in 2014 of breaching the INF, specifically through the deployment of a cruise missile known as the Novator 9M729.
A Council on Foreign Relations analysis noted some experts believe Russia is cheating for a simple reason: It can’t compete with the extensive U.S. sea- and air-based nuclear arsenal, where there are no restrictions on such missiles, so it must boost its firepower on land.
Moscow initially denied the 9M729 system’s existence, and more recently, has argued the cruise missile doesn’t violate the INF Treaty.
In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the administration would officially begin pulling the U.S. out in 60 days — by Feb. 2 — unless the Kremlin took clear steps to come back into compliance. Undersecretary Andrea Thompson, the State Department’s point woman on arms control, said last week that talks to resolve the dispute had failed.
“The Russians acknowledged having the system, but continued to say in their talking points it didn’t violate the INF, despite showing them, repeated times, the intelligence and information” to the contrary,” Ms. Thompson told reporters, according to the news website Breaking Defense.
Ms. Thompson was meeting Russian and Chinese officials Wednesday at a two-day United Nations summit being held in Beijing, where she said she hoped to push the issue again.
But with a breakthrough looking unlikely, arms control advocates are increasingly fearful of the fallout.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, said there were better ways to deal with suspected Kremlin cheating than by blowing up the treaty entirely
“It’s clear that Russia has violated the treaty again and again, which threatens transatlantic security and stability,” he said Wednesday. “But the administration should pursue serious diplomacy to save it, rather than going along with a plan to terminate the agreement, undermining international institutions and alienating our allies.”
Mayors, parliamentarians, policy experts and civil society representatives from some 40 countries this week sent a joint appeal to Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, calling on them to “prevent a new nuclear arms race in Europe.”
Ending the INF will “open the door for intermediate-range, ground-based nuclear-armed missiles returning to Europe and for U.S. deployment of such missiles in Asia,” the appeal said.
Disputes over the treaty “cannot be resolved by elevating nuclear threats and ratcheting up the arms race,” said former Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly President Christine Muttonen. Many in Europe fear the collapse of the INF will revive the divisive debates of the 1980s over whether to base U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the continent.
Russian media reported that the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the Japanese cities hits by U.S. nuclear bombs ending World War II — have also called on Moscow and Washington to preserve the treaty.
“We are deeply concerned the demise of the treaty without alternative measures will increase the risk of the use of nuclear weapons,” Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui and Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue wrote in a joint letter, according to the official Tass news agency.
Russian officials counter that it is new U.S. weapons that are undermining the spirit of the INF Treaty. And some private critics say Mr. Trump’s INF decision fits a pattern of contempt for treaties and multilateral agreements in general. Since Mr. Trump entered the White House, he has withdrawn the U.S. from 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Obama-era Paris Climate Agreement and the 2015 multilateral nuclear accord with Iran.
Newly empowered Democrats on Capitol Hill are warning the INF withdrawal raises the prospect of nuclear war and hurts the cause of curbing weapons proliferation.
Two leading Democratic senators introduced new legislation Wednesday to change longstanding U.S. nuclear doctrine and ensure that the United States never fires the first nuclear shot in potential future wars.
While the bill introduced by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington state and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not explicitly tied to the INF, the lawmakers stressed the need to “reduce the chances of a nuclear miscalculation.”
Their announcement followed news this week that the Department of Energy had kicked off production of a new low-yield nuclear weapon, as advised by the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, designed to counter Russia’s own expanding arsenal.
The Council on Foreign Relations analysis said the fate of the INF Treaty will set the stage for talks with Russia about extending another monumental nuclear arms accord, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is set to expire in 2021.
“Many arms control experts are gravely concerned about the prospect of a world without both the INF and New START, particularly given the backdrop of rising geopolitical tensions in parts of Europe and Asia,” wrote Jonathan Masters, an editor who examines national security issues for the think tank. “Without them, they warn, there’s little to prevent the breakout of an unrestricted and destabilizing nuclear arms race.”