Written by Marren Haneberg
In December 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the U.S.-Russian Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty “prohibited the United States and the Soviet Union from possessing, testing and deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers” and required both countries to destroy a specified number of nuclear missiles (Cameron). In July 2014, U.S. State Department reported Russia violated the treaty. In February 2017, the United States accused Russia of deploying a nuclear system, a further treaty violation, and attempted to coerce Russia into compliance with sanctions.
In October 2018, despite sanctions, Russia had not yet complied with the treaty. On October 20, 2018, the United States announced plans to withdraw from the INF. At the time of writing this article, this withdrawal has a number of military implications. While the United States has not developed land-based missiles for decades and is only in preliminary stages for developing a ground-launched missile, Russia is in a position to rapidly expand its nuclear capabilities. Many U.S. NATO allies favor the INF, which could deepen divisions within NATO. German foreign minister Heiko Maas expressed opposition to U.S. INF withdrawal in a statement saying the INF is “an important pillar” of Europe’s “security architecture” while EU representatives called for the United States and Russia to engage “in constructive dialogue to preserve” the treaty (Kramer).
Notwithstanding outrage expressed by the United States, European Union, and Russian foreign affairs leaders, the 1988 treaty is not as relevant as it once was. In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced hypersonic and nuclear-propelled missile development, which are not covered by the INF. Overall, the treaty cannot be easily adapted to keep up with nuclear weapons development (Baev).
The Trump administration prioritizes keeping China’s power in check. In January 2018, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis identified China as a key military threat to the United States and U.S. President Donald Trump implemented trade policies against China. The United States’ withdrawal from the INF will allow it to place “short- and intermediate-range” land-based missiles to constrain China’s navy in the Western Pacific (Kramer). U.S. National security adviser John Bolton said the treaty placed the United States “in an ‘excessively weak position’” against China (Adam). China has never been party to the INF, so it has stockpiled short- and intermediate range missile without the treaty’s constraints. In a 2017 Senate testimony, former U.S. Pacific Command head (now U.S. ambassador to South Korea) Harry Harris reported that the Chinese army had the “largest and most diverse missile force in the world” and that 95 percent of its missile force “would violate the INF Treaty if China were a signatory” (Adam).
In 2018, the Pentagon reported that China had improved its cruise missile arsenal. With current INF restrictions, the United States is “at a massive disadvantage” to “approach [China’s] coast” during a battle (Ward). However, without INF restrictions, the United States can easily “place cruise missiles on the ground” in a neighboring country such as Philippines or Japan, given the neighboring country agrees to this placement. The United States could keep China’s navy at bay using these strategically-placed missiles (Ward).
Map shows range of ground-launched and cruise missiles under INF treaty, which the United States withdrew from 30 years after signing. Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45942439.
Adam, Taylor. 2018. “How China plays into Trump’s decision to pull out of INF treaty with Russia.” Washington Post. October 23. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/10/23/how-china-plays-into-trumps-decision-pull-out-inf-treaty-with-russia/.
Baev, Pavel K. 2018. “Russia Reconsiders Consequences of INF Treaty Breakdown.” Eurasia Daily Monitor. October 29. https://jamestown.org/program/russia-reconsiders-consequences-of-inf-treaty-breakdown/.
Cameron, James J. 2018. “What the INF Treaty means for the U.S. and Europe — and why Trump mentioned China.” Washington Post. October 22. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/10/22/what-the-inf-treaty-means-for-the-u-s-and-europe-and-why-trump-mentioned-china/.
Kramer, Andrew E. 2018. “The I.N.F. Treaty, Explained.” New York Times. October 28. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/23/world/europe/inf-treaty-russia-united-states-trump-nuclear.html.
Ward, Alex. 2018. “Trump may soon kill a US-Russia arms control deal. It might be a good idea.” Vox. October 22. https://www.vox.com/2018/10/22/18008726/trump-russia-inf-treaty-missile-arms-control.