US President Donald Trump has announced that he intends to withdraw the US from the landmark INF treaty. This treaty has been a bedrock of nuclear arms control since the Cold War, having eliminated thousands of deadly nuclear missiles in Europe.
This is a very dangerous moment for the whole world. A new nuclear arms race is emerging and the threat of nuclear war grows by the day.
What is the INF Treaty?
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a treaty signed by the United States and Russia which bans ground-launch nuclear missiles with ranges from 500km to 5,500km. Signed by US President Ronald Reagan and leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the treaty came into effect in 1988.
It led to 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles being eliminated. Crucially for the UK, it also meant that US cruise and SS-20 missiles were removed from the country, significantly reducing the likelihood of the UK or Europe being caught in a US-Soviet nuclear war.
Why did the treaty come about?
During the 1970s, the Soviet Union replaced some of its older missiles (SS-4 and SS-5 models) with the newer, more accurate SS-20s which had a range of 5000km. As these missiles significantly improved the Soviet Union’s strike capabilities within Europe, NATO retaliated with a ‘dual track’ strategy. From 1979, the alliance pursued arms control measures on the one hand, whilst the US simultaneously developed new, intermediate-range missiles.
These cruise missiles and Pershing IIs were to be stationed across Western Europe and the UK, in the event that diplomatic initiatives failed. But pressure from Europe – the intended arena for a war with these missiles – led to INF treaty negotiations beginning in 1980.
Throughout the early 1980s, talks repeatedly stalled and nuclear escalation continued. But peace activists continued to campaign against the presence of nuclear arms in Europe.
Peace movements flourished in this period, with massive anti-nuclear demonstrations taking place in Britain and elsewhere. CND played a vital role in this movement, as did the iconic Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. The protests played a large part in the INF Treaty entering into force, and it was eventually signed in 1987.
There have been several issues with the INF since its adoption, with both the US and Russia accusing the other of violating the treaty. The US first raised Russian non-compliance concerns in 2013, accusing Russia of testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile. US concerns over non-compliance led to two special meetings of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), used to determine treaty compliance, in 2016 and 2017. Russia has continued to deny violating the treaty.
Russia has also made its own claims that the US is in non-compliance with the INF. These have centred on the US’ deployment of MK-41 launchers at the Aegis ground-based ballistic missile defence (BMD) site in Romania and the planned deployment of these launchers in Poland in 2020. Russia states that these launchers are essentially intermediate-range missile launchers, as they are capable of launching intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, prohibited under the INF. The US has rebutted these arguments.
In 2017, the US Department of Commerce imposed sanctions on two Russian companies involved in the missile system and the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review authorised the reintroduction of a nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile in response to Russian violations.
These allegations on both sides have placed the treaty under enormous pressure in the last few years, especially in the context of deteriorating US-Russia relations generally. However, there are some doubts as to whether Trump’s motivation for withdrawing from the treaty is purely down to these violations.
Both the US and Russia have voiced concerns regarding the treaty’s bilateral nature, arguing the INF unfairly prohibits these countries from possessing missiles which neighbouring nations – particularly China – are developing. This led to a joint statement in 2007, in which the US and Russia stated that the INF ‘is limiting the actions only of a few states, primarily Russia and the United States.’
It is believed that one of Trump’s motivations for wanting to withdraw from the treaty is the fact that the treaty places the US at a strategic disadvantage to China.
Trump made a spontaneous announcement at a campaign rally in October 2018 that he intends to withdraw the US from the INF treaty.
The US has since confirmed its position, and in December 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced at a NATO meeting that the US is giving Russia 60 days to come back into compliance with the INF, or the US will officially withdraw. This means that the US could withdraw from the INF treaty on February 2nd 2019. Once the formal notification is made, there will be a six months period before the withdrawal comes into effect.
The 60-day ultimatum
Since the US issued this ultimatum, Russia’s first response was to repeat that it is not in violation of the INF. Worryingly, President Putin also stated that if the US withdraws from the INF and starts producing any previously banned missiles, Russia will ‘do the same’.
Since then, Russia proposed a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly, which highlighted the necessity of the INF and called for both parties to engage in consultations on strategic issues and key points of concern as well as implementing additional ‘confidence building’ measures to safeguard the INF. The resolution did not pass however, with the US stating that the resolution was ‘disingenuous’ and EU members states arguing that it ‘does not help to preserve the INF Treaty, but diverts attention from the real issue at stake’.
As such, the situation is currently at a standstill and it seems unlikely that Russia will make any changes which would satisfy US demands for compliance. If the INF is torn up on February 2nd, this would likely mark the end of the restraints on nuclear arsenals achieved in the 1980s. The danger is that we will see spiralling increases on a Cold War scale.
The UK response
Britain has an important role to play in this crisis. It should be encouraging a diplomatic solution to the crisis, rather than fanning the flames that can lead to nuclear war. Standing by and allowing crucial nuclear arms control agreements to be torn up places the whole world in great danger.
The European Union has declared that the United States should ‘consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world.’ Other European nations such as Germany and France have already condemned the possibility of the US withdrawing from the treaty. The British Foreign Secretary should do the same and should be using their influence to call on both Russia and the US to fully comply with the terms of the treaty. The government could propose and facilitate negotiations to resolve the outstanding issues and save the INF.
Implications if INF is torn up
If this treaty is destroyed, the US and Russia would be free to once again produce intermediate-range missiles. As these missiles would not reach Russia if situated in the US, and vice-versa, it follows that the US would look to place them in Europe, possibly the UK.
This would massively increase the likelihood of a nuclear war being fought on European soil, hugely jeopardising UK and European security. Putin has already stated that if European countries host US intermediate-range missiles, these countries ‘must understand that they are putting their own territory at risk of a possible counter-strike [by Russia].’
This intention to withdraw from the INF treaty is part of a wider pattern of the US disengaging from essential international nuclear treaties. Earlier this year, the US withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, removing its support for a treaty which sought to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, the US withdrawal from the INF treaty also calls into question whether Washington will work with Moscow to renew the New START treaty in 2021, when it is due to expire. The New START treaty, signed in 2010, limits the number of nuclear warheads of both Russia and the US to no more than 700.
Save the INF
The INF Treaty was in large part a result of massive international protest against nuclear escalation in the 1980s, including CND protests against cruise missiles which mobilised hundreds of thousands of people. CND stands resolutely against this return to the nuclear escalation of the Cold War and we call on all peoples once again to reject these moves.
The INF must be saved to prevent a disastrous descent into a new nuclear arms race based in Europe.