Trump to pull plug on arms control treaty with Russia

US President Donald J. Trump confirmed on October 20 that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The agreement, signed between the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987, sought to ban both countries’ armed forces from keeping ground-based nuclear missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

White House officials, especially National Security Advisor John Bolton, have been pushing to abandon the treaty as they believe it is limiting Washington’s ability to counter China’s growing nuclear arsenal in East Asia. US military officials have estimated that as many as 95% of Beijing’s missiles fall in the intermediate range covered by the INF, making it impossible for the United States to counter this build-up.

American officials have also pointed to intelligence that suggests Moscow has been in violation of the treaty with its new 9M729 missile system. Although US officials have not been able to present this evidence, which they say is highly classified, NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg confirmed on October 2 that the Alliance believes the Russian system goes against the rules of the agreement. “All of the allies agree that the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the (INF) Treaty,” Stoltenberg said. Speaking after a NATO defense ministers meeting on October 4, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis warned Moscow that it “must return to compliance with the INF Treaty or [the United States] will need to respond to its cavalier disregard of the treaty’s specific limits.”

Even so, there are concerns among some European allies that withdrawing from the treaty could unnecessarily escalate tensions with Moscow and remove all limits from its nuclear behavior. Bolton is set to travel to Moscow next week, during which time he could officially inform Russian officials of the American withdrawal.

Atlantic Council analysts discussed the significance of a US withdrawal from the INF and its potential implications for US-Russian relations. [Check back for more analysis].

Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council:

“The challenge for the administration, as has been the case so often, is that a momentous decision is first announced almost as an aside comment from the president (as in this case) or a short tweet, failing to frame the rationale behind such a significant decision.

“Without a rollout strategy that points out the well-reasoned case for such a decision, the administration runs the risk of headlines, especially in Europe, that lead with, ‘Trump withdraws from INF undermining another plank of the international arms control regime and the international liberal order.’

“A well-planned rollout would ensure the full narrative is understood. That is, ‘Russia has been cheating for years with no consequence, gutting the INF Treaty of any purpose, other than to constrain the United States; this administration, rejecting bad deals, is no longer going to accept that.’”

Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“This was the right move. Russia has been cheating on this treaty for years and there was no hope of getting Moscow to return to compliance. It doesn’t make sense for the United States to be unilaterally constrained by limits that don’t affect any other country.

“Moreover, building INF-range missiles will allow us to increase our firepower in Asia to counter Chinese aggression and coercion. This may prove to be a historical step that ensures a favorable balance of power for the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia for years to come.”

Evelyn Farkas, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Future Europe Initiative, and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“It is regrettable that we are withdrawing from the INF treaty, but the American hand has been forced by Russia. The Russians have been in violation of this treaty for years and it’s time for them to understand that there will be consequences for their dangerous nuclear policy.

“I do hope that US actions prompt the Russians to wake up and conduct serious negotiations over conventional and nuclear arms control.”

John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center:

“Moscow has been violating the INF Treaty for years at no cost. The Obama Administration complained about this with no result. The Trump Administration would be justified in leaving the treaty, but the smarter move would be to use that threat as a lever to persuade our till this point silent Allies to agree on a set of stiff counter measures if Russia violations continue. Such measures could include withdrawal from the treaty.”

Barry Pavel, senior vice president, Arnold Kanter chair, and director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council

“The Trump administration’s position to withdraw the United States from the 1987 INF Treaty is well-grounded – based on repeated Russian violations over many years, including testing and deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile.  However, the administration did not engage in three important efforts that would have lent the decision greater effectiveness:

    • First, the administration did not frame the decision in an effective fashion; if it had done so, it would have cited Russian treaty violations as well as critical military requirements in the Asian theater relating to China’s ongoing military buildup;
    • Second, it did not engage in the necessary consultations with close U.S. allies before the announcement; and
    • Finally, it did not appear to seek to use the leverage of the threat to withdraw in order to try to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty

“What this decision foresages, in combination with likely Russian and Chinese reactions, is the potential for a very dangerous decade ahead, replete with arms races in missiles, cyberspace, space, and other domains.”

Michael Carpenter, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Future Europe Initiative, and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security:

“The Trump administration’s sudden and poorly-messaged announcement of US withdrawal from the INF Treaty was a mistake. The administration failed to lay the proper groundwork and impulsively sprung this move on our Allies. This is already leading some to blame the United States for the demise of the treaty.

“A much smarter course of action would have been to adopt military countermeasures in response to Russia’s violation and (quietly) launch a program of accelerated research & development (R&D) on an intermediate-range missile. Most commentators on INF are ignorant of the fact that the treaty allows for states-parties to conduct R&D, and prohibits only testing and deployment. A stepped-up R&D program should have been accompanied by an ultimatum to the Kremlin and a strategic messaging campaign that highlighted Russia’s violation and the reasons why the United States might need to withdraw. Instead the Trump administration clumsily fell into the trap of playing the fall guy and got nothing in return but the resentment of our Allies. Eventually, the United States may well have been forced to withdraw from INF for good strategic reasons, but the timing and messaging of this announcement were completely ham fisted.”

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Related Experts: Matthew Kroenig and Damon Wilson

Image: US President Ronald Reagan (right) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the White House on December 8, 1987. US President Donald J. Trump has said he will withdraw the United States from the treaty. (Reuters/Dennis Paquin)