The decision by US President Donald J. Trump to withdraw the United States’ participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is potentially bad for Europe but would have no short-term effect on the US, a leading expert in Washington DC told New Europe.
“If Russia is freed from the constraints of INF, then it can develop intermediary nuclear weapons, which presumably could target Europe,” Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said by phone a few days after Trump’s announcement. “They could not target the US…the United States could potentially develop these kinds of missiles, but it would be unlikely they could target Russia because that would mean placing them in Europe and that would require the consent of the European states and NATO, which doesn’t seem likely,” he added.
Signed in 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty aimed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons delivery systems.
According to Mankoff, the main pillar of arms control for both Washington and Moscow remains the New START treaty signed in 2010 between then-presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, which limits the size of deployed forces of both nations to 1,550 nuclear warheads on 700 delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers.
“I suppose the question becomes whether there is a decision to prolong START. The INF has not been in a good state for a while now. There are mutual accusations of violations and most likely both sides have a point. That perception that both sides were not complying with the treaty, coupled with a general opposition to arms control agreement that this (the Trump) administration seems to have, I don’t think that it’s terribly surprising that they decided to pull out of the agreement,” Mankoff said. “There is no comparable suggestion of cheating around new START limits. Of course, there are verification provisions mixed into that but I think whether the new START gets prolonged will be determined primarily by where the domestic debate in the US is as you get closer to the deadline for making a decision.”
Russia has responded to the US threat to withdraw by warning that Trump’s decision could trigger a new arms race. Mankoff, however, argued that scraping the INF treaty does not mean arms control is dead. The Trump Administration doesn’t have a lot of interest in arms control, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to decide to pull out from the new START or that a future US administration is not going to try to resurrect the INF in a different form.
The geopolitical environment has changed since the original INF treaty was negotiated by the United States and the now-dissolved Soviet Union in the latter days of the Cold War, and both the US and Russia have different concerns today.
“There’s a perception, especially in the US, even among people who don’t think arms control per se is bad – that the INF treaty outlived its usefulness,” said Mankoff, who warned, however, that anything that leads to more nuclear weapons has the potential to be dangerous especially when the rules around their development and deployment are not established.
“In that sense, I think it’s dangerous. I don’t think it’s apocalyptic because, again, in practical terms the implementation of the INF commitments on both sides was already kind of shaky,” Mankoff said, “But since both sides seem to be in violation of the agreement anyway, formally scrapping it in the short term is probably not going to change much. In the long term, of course, it opens up possibilities for developing and fielding additional weapons that, because of the lack of constraint and lack of agreement on the rules, could end up being destabilising.”
Mankoff believes that it would have been preferable to renegotiate the agreement in a way that it met the interests of both sides, but added that this approach would be counter to the thinking of the Trump administration.
The US has argued that Russia is in violation of the treaty because it has deployed prohibited tactical nuclear weapons and strategic rocket forces to its Eastern European exclave of Kaliningrad and to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, in an effort to intimidate Europe and other former Soviet republics that hope to maintain or cultivate close relations with the West.
Mankoff explained that the tactical nuclear issue is separate in many ways in that “The INF is about delivery systems. When you talk about tactical nuclear weapons, that’s not a very precise term but a lot of times when people use that term it’s basically battlefield nuclear weapons, nuclear-tipped artillery pieces, and things that can be used in an escalation of a conventional conflict…most of which would have a much shorter range than what would be covered by the INF,” which he explained would have little practical effect on the deployment of higher yield nuclear weapons.
“Not having the INF is potentially bad for Europe, of course, because Europe would be the one that would be vulnerable to the deployment of weapons by Russia that is currently not permitted. The US is out of range of these kinds of weapons systems and I don’t think that the European countries or NATO would consent to the US placing intermediate-range weapons on their territory,” as the Europeans, as they were during the Cold War, would the be most at risk in the event of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US.
“I’m not in favour of scrapping the treaty, but I also think that given that both sides are already in violation (of its provisions), scrapping it is, in some ways, the reflection of reality and where things were going anyway so I don’t think it’s an earth-shaking development.”