On 2 August 2019 the United States formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. In place for over 30 years, it was considered a cornerstone of the international arms control architecture as it was the first treaty to eliminate an entire category of weapons from the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia and ended a nuclear stand-off in Europe. What are the implications of its demise for European security and the arms control agenda more broadly?

In 1987 the US and Russia formally agreed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, under which both sides agreed to eliminate all nuclear-armed, ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500km, their transporter/ launcher mechanisms and any associated infrastructure. It was the first treaty to eliminate an entire category of weapons from the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia and ended a nuclear stand-off in Cold War Europe.

In February 2019 the United States announced the suspension of its INF obligations amid longstanding allegations of Russian non-compliance, and on 2 August 2019 formally withdrew from the Treaty.

Background to the dispute

After several years of suspicion and rumour, it was only in 2014 that the US formally, and publicly, accused Russia of being in violation of the INF treaty, following reported Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile (the Novator 9M729/ NATO designation SSC-8) with a range of between 500km and 5,500km. In 2017 the US suggested that Russia had advanced beyond flight testing and had begun to field the missile in question, a move which violated “the spirit and intent” of the INF treaty.

As a consequence, in December 2017 the US announced that it would introduce economic and military measures to induce Russia back into compliance, which included sanctions and a review of the research and development options for new US conventional, ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. The 2018 US Nuclear Posture Review reiterated these measures, whilst also recommending the reintroduction of nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles as an INF-compliant response to Russia’s alleged violation. However, both the NPR and the US State Department indicated that the US could cease its pursuit of either option if Russia returned to full and verifiable compliance with its INF obligations.

Allegations of non-compliance were consistently disputed by the Russian government which stated that the missile in question had a much shorter range than the US suggested and criticised the US for not providing evidence to the contrary. In turn, Russia also accused the US itself of violating the INF Treaty with the fielding of its ballistic missile defence system in Europe, which they argued can launch intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles. Russia also suggested that the US’ development and deployment of unmanned combat aerial vehicles was a breach of the treaty’s provisions.

Attempts to resolve the INF impasse

Both sides indicated that they were willing to engage in dialogue on the INF treaty, although nothing substantive emerged from the few meetings that took place. Allegations and counter-allegations of non-compliance continued to be levelled by both parties, while practical efforts or proposals toward allaying the concerns of either side were distinctly lacking. This led to concern among commentators and experts that there was, in fact, little genuine interest, by either side, in resolving the dispute.

Indeed, many within the Russian government have long considered the INF treaty discriminatory, and one which places a greater burden on Russia which, unlike the US, is surrounded by third countries in possession of significant intermediate-range cruise missile capabilities. Several Russian critics also expressed the belief that the treaty inhibits Russia’s effective use of its nuclear forces to offset the deficiencies in its conventional military capabilities, in particular in Europe. As such many observers considered that, for Russia, the strategic benefits to be gained from non-compliance with the INF treaty could, in fact, be worth it.

In the United States the treaty equally had its critics, including President Trump’s former National Security Adviser John Bolton who referred to the INF in 2014 as an “obsolete treaty even before Russian cheated”, and advocated pulling out of the treaty, regardless of whether Russia was compliant or not.

US withdrawal

The influence of John Bolton was considered, by many commentators, to be the reason behind President Trump’s announcement at a campaign rally on 20 October 2018 that the US would withdraw from the INF treaty. The announcement was regarded as a significant setback for international arms control and met with concern from allies and arms control experts alike, who argued that it could lead to an unconstrained and dangerous nuclear arms competition with Russia and undermine security in Europe.

On 4 December 2018 the US administration announced that it would suspend its obligations under the INF treaty if Russia failed to come back into compliance within 60 days. Following the failure of further talks, on 1 February 2019 President Trump formally announced the US’ intention to suspend its obligations under the INF treaty, effective as of 2 February, and that the US would begin the process of withdrawal. That process would be completed in 6 months unless Russia came back into compliance by “destroying all of its violating missiles, launchers, and associated equipment”.

Russian response

Russia responded by announcing tit-for-tat measures, with the formal suspension of Russian involvement in the INF treaty and the start of work on new missile capabilities prohibited by the treaty.

What now?

With the collapse of the INF treaty on 2 August 2019, both Parties are now free to pursue the development and deployment of ground-launched intermediate-range missiles and in August 2019 the US tested a ground-launched variant of its Tomahawk cruise missile, which would have previously been prohibited under the treaty. However, both sides have stated that they will not be the first to deploy such weapons in Europe, although they have also suggested that they will respond to any escalation of the situation by the other side.

The NATO Secretary General has confirmed that the Alliance will respond in a measured and responsible way, and is currently examining a “balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures to ensure NATO’s deterrence and defence posture remains credible and effective”.

For arms control more broadly, such an outcome does not bode well for discussions on the extension or replacement of the New START treaty, which is due to lapse in 2021. It is now the only treaty placing checks on the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia. If it is allowed to expire, there will be no limitations on the arsenals of the world’s two largest nuclear powers for the first time since 1972, prompting fears of a quantitative, as well as qualitative nuclear arms race.