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EFSAS Commentary

Intended US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty): Security threat to the world


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), signed in 1987 by the then President of United States (US), Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is a nuclear arms control agreement, which stipulates that all nuclear and conventional missiles of the two countries, except sea-launched weapons, are eliminated from operation within the range of 500-5,500 km.

The treaty was a result of the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range missiles such as the SS-20 in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, which was directly considered a threat to Europe’s security and defence by NATO members. Within the following few years, a total of 2,692 of nuclear weapons were destroyed, 846 by the US and 1,846 by the Soviet Union and both countries were allowed to inspect each other’s nuclear installations and military bases. Therefore, the INF Treaty is recognised as the pillar of US-Soviet relations in regard to nuclear security and control, particularly in respect to the integrity of the European continent, and one of the cardinal moves towards bringing the Cold War to an end.   

In October 2018, US President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, causing havoc among the international community, especially the Russian Federation (the successor of the USSR) and leading European countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France. Trump argued that the reason behind the pull-out is the suspected violation of the treaty on behalf of the Russian State, alongside with the fact that the INF Treaty puts the US at great disadvantage in terms of their nuclear proliferation and strategic rivalry with China, which is not a signatory to the treaty and is in a position of expanding its nuclear capabilities.

Since July 2014, Washington has been arguing that Moscow is in violation of the INF Treaty due to its development of SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles, which fall outside of the jurisdiction of the treaty. However, Russia claims that the technical characteristics of the missile are satisfying the necessary provisions, arguing that the SSC-8 has been launched from a distance significantly lower than 500 km. Unsurprisingly, the US remains sceptic. Nevertheless, during that time, President Barack Obama decided not to withdraw from the accord owing to objections and pressure from European leaders, who were apprehensive that such actions could revive a nuclear arms race between the two decades-old adversaries.

Accusations of US-noncompliance with the conditions of the treaty have also been made on behalf of Russia. Moscow claims that the US Aegis Ashore missile defence systems established in Romania and Poland are in a position of launching Tomahawk missiles, pointing out the offensive nature of the establishments, which pose a direct threat to Russia, while the Pentagon argues that the facilities have only a defensive purpose. For Russia, having American ballistic missile bases in such close proximity to its territory implies that if the US withdraws from the agreement, it could easily target Moscow.  

The hostile rhetoric and rolling allegations on behalf of both countries have escalated to the point that on 4 December 2018, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave Russian President Vladimir Putin 60 days to start complying with the agreement and get rid of the nuclear arms they believe are in breach of the treaty, threatening that otherwise the US will pull out and start producing and deploying new ground-launched nuclear missiles. Putin continues insisting that Russia is in compliance with the accord and questions Washington’s real intentions behind the threat of withdrawing, which would create considerable risks for the future of the European continent.

Since China is not a signatory party to the treaty, Beijing has been steadily working on the development and expansion of its intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and thus emerging as a nuclear threat not only to the US and Russia, but also to other countries which bear nuclear arsenal, such as India. Dodging the treaty could have dire consequences for the South Asian region as well, since the current era of multipolar nuclear arms proliferation has brought new players to the fore.

In an interview with Asian News International (ANI), Adam Ni, a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra, has argued that: “The key reason for a potential US withdraw would be Washington's view of strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific against China. For many years now, US strategists and policymakers have argued that the INF Treaty hinders US military strategy against China in the Asia-Pacific".

The US seems anxious about not having ground-based missiles in close proximity to China, which could ultimately result into the deployment of such categories of nuclear warheads in Asia once the INF Treaty is scraped away.

The region of South Asia has steadily grown into a hotbed for nuclear dispute, owing to the ongoing territorial conflicts, historical animosities, cross-border terrorism, proxy warfare and growing nuclear arsenals, leading to the creation of a triad of nuclear power neighbours – India, China and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the New Delhi-Beijing nuclear relation has never been in imminent peril, unlike the Indo-Pak rivalry, which has been blemished with years of nuclear threats and counterthreats.

The signed $5.4 billion purchase of advanced ballistic missile defence technology between Prime Minister Modi and President Putin in October 2018, created additional anxiety, not only in Pakistan, which directly perceived it as a threat to its integrity and renewal of the two countries’ arms race, but also in the US, which cautioned India that sanctions may apply if the country acquires the Russian S-400 missiles. Earlier in September 2018, Washington also imposed sanctions on Beijing for purchasing Russian military jets and surface-to-air missiles, which additionally deteriorated the already strained Sino-American diplomatic and military ties.

In August 2017, Trump’s administration declared that countries which pursue transactions with Russia’s defence or intelligence sectors would be subject to punitive measures under its castigating Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

What becomes clear from the abovementioned two examples is that the US ultimately targeted Moscow’s aim of expanding its influence and military footprint in the region, yet according to many security and defence specialists, such efforts could appear counterproductive. As per, Jonathan Marcus, BBC Defence & Diplomatic Correspondent, “sanctions may be a good way of registering US displeasure and causing Russia economic pain, but they may well not produce the desired outcome, a change in Russian policy”.

The potential pull-out of the US from the INF Treaty could further accelerate the rapidly changing balance of power in the South Asian region, and actually bring Russia closer to New Delhi and Beijing. EFSAS Commentary of 14-09-2018 drew attention to the landmark first ever ‘2+2’ summit between the US and India in New Delhi, aimed at forging diplomatic and strategic relations, facilitating the interoperability of the two countries and overcoming Beijing’s regional objectives. As the commentary concluded, the US threatening to impose sanctions on such a strategic partner and regional security provider like India, merely for having legacy linkages and strategic interests, would be an aberration as the threat of sanctions and strategic partnerships do not sit well with each other.

The world is already polarised vis-à-vis nuclear proliferation and history bears witness to the fact that, in essence, the major reason behind the possession of nuclear weapons is the desire for protection against the potential offensive of a rival country. Hence, a nuclear arsenal becomes a strategic instrument aimed at maintaining an atmosphere of peace and stability. Scrapping the 30-year old accord will eventually give Moscow and Washington additional outlets for developing more advanced nuclear arms systems and technology, which could be purchased by their allies; it will leave the two countries with deficient nuclear control measures and increase global and regional security risks.

It is of utmost importance that confidence building and safeguarding measures are adopted by both countries in order to decrease the chances of a nuclear confrontation which could affect other regions such as Europe and Asia. If any of the two sides, or both, believe that the other is not complying with the stipulations of the treaty, they should be authorised to inspect each other’s military installations in order to establish transparency and trust, as during the inception of the treaty. In addition to that, the INF Treaty must be extended in order to include other nuclear powers such as China, which were not at the forefront of the nuclear arms race three decades ago, but definitely are as of today.

European leaders play a substantial role in putting pressure on the US and Russia, and in resolving this dilemma, yet as Nathan Levine, US-China fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and an associate of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, asserts, one should not be fooled: "…The real game to watch is being played in Asia”.