The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to convince European allies that its looming withdrawal from a landmark arms-control treaty on account of Russian violations is the right course of action.
Among other steps, the administration is assuring allies that none of the missiles the United States would contemplate deploying after withdrawing from the Cold War-era pact would be armed with nuclear warheads, according to a senior U.S. official.
That is one of the many points the United States has been making in consultations with foreign partners about its likely withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the agreement banned nuclear and nonnuclear missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or about 310 to 3,400 miles.
The INF Treaty represented a breakthrough in Cold War arms control, eliminating more than 2,600 missiles and ending a years-long standoff with nuclear missiles on the European continent that pitted NATO against the Warsaw Pact nations.
President Trump’s announcement in October that the United States would leave the treaty raised fears among some in Europe of a return to the 1980s, when nuclear-tipped missiles across the continent threatened to strike their targets within minutes.
Since Trump’s announcement, Russian officials have played on those fears and suggested to European nations that the U.S. withdrawal doesn’t serve their interests and risks the further erosion of the Cold War-era arms-control framework.
The head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament, Konstantin Kosachev, warned last week that Russia would target any intermediate-range missiles the United States deploys in Europe after withdrawing from the treaty and would, if necessary, move its missiles closer to Europe.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said this week that Russia wouldn’t turn a blind eye to U.S. missile deployments in Europe.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reminded European allies that Russia is the country violating the treaty, not the United States, and therefore bears responsibility for the pact’s breakdown.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats headed to Europe on Tuesday for consultations on the matter, after the administration faced criticism for not coordinating closely enough with European allies before Trump announced plans to withdraw.
Some European nations, including Germany, have sought to persuade American officials not to withdraw from the treaty so quickly and to take further efforts to save it. But so far the Trump administration doubts whether additional efforts to bring Russia back into compliance would bear fruit, given that years of attempts have failed. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, expressed a desire for the United States to pull out of the treaty years before Washington first flagged Moscow’s violations.
U.S. officials suspect that Russia has long wanted to escape the constraints of the treaty, which bans missiles launched from land but not those that take off from naval vessels or aircraft. Those rules are particularly onerous to a land-based military power like Russia.
Moscow wants to obtain the military benefits of the cheap and hard-to-find missiles banned by the pact, but at the same time, it hopes to pin the blame on the United States for the treaty’s breakdown, U.S. officials say.
“These relatively low-cost and survivable capabilities give Russia more options to strike allied military targets and populations without consuming Russia’s inventory of strategic offensive weapons and theater strike resources such as sea-launched cruise missiles,” Coats said in a call with reporters Tuesday. “We believe Russia’s objective was to keep the United States constrained while it quietly built and deployed a force of illegal missiles that threaten Europe.”
Already, the Trump administration has disclosed publicly that Russia’s violations include the deployment of a missile known as the SSC-8, or the 9M729 under its Russian designation. The United States has declared Russia in violation of the treaty for five years in a row and, according to the State Department, has conducted more than 30 engagements with Russian officials at senior levels in failed attempts to bring Moscow into compliance. On Nov. 16, the State Department released a “myth busters” fact sheet replying to Russian claims regarding the pact.
Despite those efforts, Russia has continued to deny the U.S. allegations.
“It’s hard to say what the U.S. accusations were based on,” said Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister. “It’s possible that intelligence data were eagerly tweaked to serve a political order, or it could be that intelligence structures just made wrong assessments.”
Speaking on Oct. 20, Trump said the United States couldn’t adhere to the treaty alone as Russia and China went ahead and deployed midrange missiles. The United States will pull out, Trump said, “unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us, and they all come to us and they say, ‘Let’s really get smart, and let’s none of us develop those weapons.’”
Such an agreement seems improbable for now. More likely is that the treaty’s demise will allow the United States and Russia to deploy intermediate-range missiles on land legally as China continues to operate a conventional arsenal of them without constraint.
The attraction of the missiles for Russia and China is the same as it is for the United States: They’re cheaper to operate than sea and air variants and easier to conceal in the face of missile defenses, freeing up submarines and airplanes to conduct other missions, according to the official. They also impose costs on adversaries, which expend resources figuring out how to defend against them.
The rationale for deploying conventional midrange missiles in Europe would be to blunt any Russian attempt to prevent the U.S. military from resupplying European allies in a future conflict, according to the senior U.S. official.
In Asia, the United States could deploy conventional midrange missiles near Chinese ships and militarized artificial islands during a conflict to defend parts of the East China Sea or South China Sea.
It’s unclear, however, which Asian allies would be willing to host the missiles and risk China’s ire.
The senior U.S. official cautioned that any such deployments or decisions about where the missiles would be based remain years away.
The U.S. military could achieve similar goals with other weapons under development or with sea- and air-launched missiles. Deployment in Europe risks dividing an already strained North Atlantic alliance caught between hawkish nations on the eastern flank, which might agree to host the weapons, and dovish Western European nations, which could view them as overly provocative.
Germany in particular has expressed concern about raising the risk of a new nuclear arms race in Europe.
“We’re working to persuade the United States not to hastily withdraw from the INF Treaty,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last week. “We don’t want Europe to become the scene of a debate on a nuclear arms buildup.”
The Trump administration is considering whether to develop an entirely new weapons program for midrange missiles or modify existing missiles to increase their range, the senior official said. The Army has already started exploring both.
Still, a full-fledged effort to fund, develop and test such weapons can’t start until the United States ceases being a party to the treaty.