The INF Treaty, 32 Years later, Crisis and Global Implications

Thirty-two years ago, On December 8th, 1987, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty).

Why did it come up?

The INF Treaty arose following the Euro-missile crisis during the late 1970s and 1980s.

In 1977, the Soviet Union deployed the 5,000 km SS-20 Saber cruise missiles capable of carrying three nuclear warheads. While the missile’s range didn’t qualify as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) under the SALT II treaty, it still posed a substantial threat to Europe.

By 1979, the US, in response, deployed Pershing intermediate-range missiles to Britain and West Germany.

After a series of talks with America in 1982 & 1983 failed, Soviet negotiators walk out of discussions.

Eventually, negotiations restarted in 1985 after UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher helped broker talks between the United States and new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The final INF Treaty text was agreed to in September 1987 and signed on December 8th, 1987.

What does the INF Treaty do?

The agreement prohibits the United States and the Soviet Union from deploying ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

The missile range virtually puts all the European peninsula at risk. However, the missile posed no threat to either mainland United States to the West or Russia along the Urals to the East.

The INF treaty led to the removal of US Pershing missiles from Britain and West Germany, and the Soviet pulled its SS-20 cruise missiles out of the European target range.

The Impact of the INF Treaty

By the end of May 1991, 2,692 intermediate-range missiles were removed, including 1,846 by the Soviet Union and 846 by the United States.

Each side carried out inspections of the other’s former missile facilities.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25th, 1991, the bilateral INF Treaty was widened into a multilateral treaty. The new agreement included former Soviet states of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Issue at Hand

In 2019, the US withdrew from the INF Treaty because of alleged violations by Russia. The US has accused Russia of breaching the INF treaty by developing the SSC-8, a land-based, intermediate-range cruise missile.

In 2008, Russia commenced testing the SSC-8 Novator cruise missile, nuclear-capable, with an estimated range of 1,500 miles. This missile range will place it within the jurisdiction of the INF Treaty.

In 2014, the Obama administration informed NATO that Russia had violated the treaty by developing the missile.

Russia, in response, denied the claim, saying the missile has a maximum range of 480 km. Instead, it accused the US of violating the INF Treaty by placing missile defense systems in Romania and Poland.

On December 4th, 2018, the US suspended its participation in the INF Treaty for 60 days over Russia’s alleged violation. However, no testing, production, or deployment occurred.

In August 2019, the Trump administration followed through with its planned withdrawal from the INF Treaty in response to Russia’s development and deployment of land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles.

The China Factor

While the principal reason for the US withdrawal from the treaty is Russia’s violation, China is also a factor.

China emerged as a missile power along the Indo-Pacific region. Beijing was never a signatory to the INF. As its economy grew, it built up over 2,000-plus land-based short & intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles within the INF-proscribed ranges. To Beijing, these missiles are vital for defending its geopolitical interest along the East China Sea, and the South China Sea, and the greater Indo- Pacific region.

Many of these missiles would pose a significant challenge for the US and allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region in a conflict situation.

The withdrawal of the INF Treaty allows the United States to develop and deploy short or intermediate-range missiles. By deploying its missiles, the US can deter China from launching its missiles in wartime.

Global Implications

The INF Treaty had a tremendous impact; it lowered the risk of nuclear war in Europe.

However, the looming expiration of the INF Treaty will fuel a massive missile arms race between the great global powers in Eurasia.

The United States is now planning a significant build-up and deployment of land-based intermediate-range missiles. The missiles will be stationed in Europe and Asia. On August 18th, the United States flight-tested a ground-launched cruise missile with a range greater than 500 kilometers. That range would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty.

In Asia, the ideal location may include Japan, South Korea, Australia, or US territory of Guam to challenge China in the Asia-Pacific. The US territory of Guam sits nearly 2,000 miles away from China’s eastern coastline. Washington can base its missiles in Guam, which would cover targets in Eastern China.

In Europe, Kaliningrad will be the ideal strategic position for Russia to deploy its short & intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles. For the United States, Germany would be the best location. However, Berlin may refuse to avoid caught between Russian and US intermediate-range nuclear missile build-up just like during the Cold War. Thus, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania may house US missiles if America agrees to establish a military base in their territory.

The biggest concern from the collapse of the INF treaty may be the potential end to the “NEW START” agreement. The NEW START limits the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. The pact limits the US and Russia to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers, and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

Signed in 2010, NEW START is due to expire in February 2021. Predictably the standoff between the United States and Russia regarding the INF treaty is not enabling talks on the extension to New START.

Therefore, with the breakup of the INF treaty, they are no incentive renewing the NEW START agreement.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty signed in 1972 collapsed in 2002, the INF treaty collapse is imminent, and the extension of the NEW START in 2021 is on shaky ground.

Expect a significant arms race (nuclear warheads and missiles) in the United States, Europe, China, and Russia. The risk of thermonuclear war will increase significantly in the future.

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