The future of a landmark Cold War arms control treaty hangs in the balance as White House national security adviser John Bolton prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, days after President Trump announced plans to exit the arms control pact.
At stake is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or the INF, an agreement Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987 that eliminated an entire category of nuclear missiles and removed more than 2,500 of them from installations across Europe.
After years of trading accusations about violations, the United States and Russia look poised to reach a final showdown over the pact, after Trump announced on Saturday that he was no longer willing to abide Russian violations and therefore would withdraw.
“We’re going to terminate the agreement,” Trump said. “We’re going to pull out.”
The breakdown of the treaty threatens to escalate a nascent arms race among Washington, Moscow and Beijing and further chip away at an arms control architecture that American and Soviet diplomats painstakingly constructed during the Cold War. Officials say the Trump administration hasn’t formally decided to withdraw, but Bolton went to Moscow planning to inform the Kremlin of the intent.
In Europe, the possibility of the treaty’s dissolution has raised fears of a return to the 1980s, when both Washington and Moscow were dotting the continent with nuclear-tipped missiles, prompting hundreds of thousands of Europeans to protest. Those tensions ultimately led to the INF.
The potential demise of the INF threatens to “again turn us in Central Europe and here in Germany into a venue of nuclear madness,” Sigmar Gabriel, who stepped down as German foreign minister in March, said Monday.
Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov warned that a U.S. exit from the INF “would prompt Russia to take measures to ensure national security.”
After Bolton met Monday with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, the nation’s security council sounded a conciliatory note.
“The Russian side reiterated its principled position about the importance of keeping the treaty in place and reaffirmed its readiness for the joint work aimed at eliminating mutual grievances relating to the implementation of this Treaty,” the council said in a statement, according to the Interfax news agency.
The INF bans the testing, production and deployment of nuclear and nonnuclear ground-launch ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
When it was signed at the White House, the pact elicited widespread support in the West. The Senate ratified it with a 93-5 vote. European allies rejoiced that the midrange nuclear missiles would no longer be deployed in their backyards.
By eliminating short-flight missiles, the pact theoretically enhanced the decision-making time for leaders faced with a nuclear strike.
But the treaty began fraying in recent years.
Starting in 2014, as ties between the White House and the Kremlin deteriorated over Ukraine, the Obama administration began saying publicly for the first time that Russia was cheating on the pact. The Trump administration has since said Russia’s deployment of a ground-launch cruise missile known as the 9M729, or the SSC-8 in NATO parlance, violates the treaty.
Putin countered that U.S. missile defense systems in Romania violate the treaty because they could launch intermediate-range missiles. The United States has refuted that allegation, saying the systems launch only interceptor missiles — or missiles designed to hit other missiles — which don’t fall under the treaty.
The INF has long rankled Bolton.
In a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, before any Russian violations surfaced, Bolton and co-author Paula DeSutter said the INF had outlived its usefulness, referencing Charles de Gaulle’s remark, “Treaties, you see, are like girls and roses: They last while they last.”
Bolton argued that the INF had become obsolete because it constrained only Washington and Moscow, just as other nations, including China, Iran and North Korea, remained free to develop intermediate-range missiles. He said the United States should expand the treaty to include other members or withdraw entirely to develop its own deterrent systems in the intermediate range.
“The U.S. motto on the INF should be: expand it or expunge it,” Bolton and DeSutter wrote.
Three years later, in a subsequent article he co-authored in the Wall Street Journal with John Yoo, Bolton dropped the suggestion of broadening the INF into a multilateral treaty and simply suggested that the United States withdraw in response to Russian violations that surfaced publicly that year.
After his meeting with Patrushev, Bolton gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy radio in which he said Asian allies threatened by Chinese missiles had cheered Trump’s comments on the INF. He said there would be further consultations with U.S. allies and Russia in the coming months, and underscored how both Washington and Moscow were being constrained by the treaty.
The breakthrough that led to the INF came after an agonizing episode in the Cold War arms race.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Soviet Union deployed intermediate-range nuclear ballistic missiles, known as SS-20s, that could hit European capitals in a matter of minutes. The United States responded by stationing intermediate-range Pershing II nuclear missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western European nations.
The buildup of nuclear missiles prompted more than a million Germans to protest in the streets, and caused concern throughout Europe. The pressure on Moscow ultimately led to the INF, which eliminated SS-20 and Pershing II missiles altogether.
If the United States withdraws from the INF, NATO will have to decide how to build up defenses against a Russia unfettered in its production and deployment of intermediate-range missiles. Tension between the Trump administration and European capitals would likely stymie the redeployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Europe.
Bolton, writing in the 2014 article in the Wall Street Journal, suggested the United States wouldn’t need to put Pershing II-style missiles back in Europe. He expressed confidence that NATO could safeguard Europe and counter Russia with intermediate-range deployments on weapons systems in the air and at sea. The INF covers only ground-launch missiles.
“If worst comes to worst, we could follow the Russians and use intercontinental-ballistic missiles at less-than-intercontinental ranges,” Bolton wrote.
The United States could find other ways to defend against a Russia unfettered by the INF.
The Trump administration earlier this year announced plans to develop a nuclear-tipped, sea-launch cruise missile in response to Russia’s violations of the INF. The U.S. military could also put Tomahawk cruise missiles on ground launchers and deploy them in the Pacific. They are currently on ships and submarines. The Pentagon, mandated by Congress, is also in the early stages of developing a missile banned under the INF for possible deployment if the treaty falls apart.
Europeans are watching the negotiations anxiously.
The European Union’s foreign policy arm said in a statement that while it expected Russia to address violations, it also expected the United States to consider the consequences of a withdrawal. “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability,” the statement added.
When it comes to the treaty ceasing to exist, advocates of withdrawal see little to lose other than constraints on the U.S. military, particularly in Asia.
“The INF Treaty doesn’t exist anymore,” said Franklin C. Miller, a principal at the Scowcroft Group and a former Pentagon official. “The Russians have killed it. By deliberate design, the Russian government cynically destroyed the INF Treaty, and therefore all of those people who say we have to continue to believe in the treaty also want you to believe in unicorns.”
Disarmament advocates, however, argue that even a tattered version of the treaty is constraining Russia from what could become a much larger deployment of intermediate-range missiles.
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Washington hasn’t exhausted the diplomatic possibilities for saving the treaty.
He suggested, for example, that the United States inspect the Russian missile in question and propose either modifications that could prevent it from flying at intermediate distances or an end to its deployment altogether. In exchange, he suggested, the United States could arrange Russian inspections of U.S. missile defense installations to demonstrate that the systems contain only defensive interceptor missiles.
Kimball criticized the Trump administration’s approach.
“This is a counterproductive, unilateral, impulsive decision that threatens to disrupt an already difficult European security situation,” he said. “It shifts the blame away from Russia, where it belongs, for the INF’s troubles to Donald Trump and John Bolton. We have not exhausted the diplomatic measures that are available to bring Russia back into compliance.”
Troianovski reported from Moscow.