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In yet another disruptive policy announcement, the Trump administration announced on August 2, 2019 the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty due to the alleged violation of the treaty by the Russian Federation.
On February 2, the US provided its six-month notice of withdrawal from the treaty. The US defended its decision by alleging that Russia failed to return to full and verified compliance through the destruction of its noncompliant missile system – the SSC-8 or 9M729 ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missiles.
Putting the onus on Russia for the treaty’s demise, the US alleged that since the mid-2000s, Russia developed, produced, flight tested, and then fielded multiple battalions of its noncompliant missile. Though the US raised its concerns with Russia in 2013, Russia continued to rebuff the US charge of treaty violation. The Trump administration felt that if it continued to remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia, it would jeopardize the interests of the US and hence decided to annul it.
In a press statement, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said: “The United States remains committed to effective arms control that advances U.S., allied, and partner security; is verifiable and enforceable; and includes partners that comply responsibly with their obligations. President Trump has charged this Administration with beginning a new chapter by seeking a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past.”
Echoing Pompeo’s observations, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the withdrawal would allow the United States to develop its own new conventional missiles. In a statement he remarked: “Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions.”
Even when reactions from various countries to the US decision continued to pour in, the US tested a US missile on August 18 that exceeded limits set down by the now-abandoned treaty, the Cold War agreement between the US and Russia scrapped by the US on August 2. The test off the coast of California, a modified Navy Tomahawk cruise missile flew more than 310 miles (500 kilometers). The arms control INF Treaty was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. It eliminated the medium-range missiles arsenals of the two countries and went into effect in June of the following year.
The INF Treaty had barred the possession, production or flight-testing of all types of missiles with a range between 310 miles and 3,417 miles (500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers) — nuclear weapons considered especially destabilizing because of their short flight times. The Soviet Union and the US had both deployed such weapons in Europe. The US hinted that the test was likely the beginning of a program to build additional weapons that was barred by the treaty. It expected that the data collected and lessons learned from the test will help the Department of Defense’s “development of future intermediate-range capabilities”.
The US test seems to be in reaction to Russia’s disastrous test of 9M730 Burevestnick, known to NATO as the SSC-X-9 Skyfall, a type of cruise missile powered by a small nuclear reactor to give it almost unlimited range. It is believed that the missile exploded during testing at a site along the White Sea in Russia’s Arctic northwest, killing at least five scientists and causing a local spike in radiation levels.
The sudden push by both sides to test new missiles has revived fears of a Cold War-style arms race. The US felt that the INF Treaty which helped dampen such tests was no longer effective. Dismissing any fear of a new arms race, the US put the onus on Russia having started this first in violation to the INF Treaty and the US move was in reaction to this. The US also alleged in 2017 that Russia in 2016 had tested another type of cruise missile, the Novator 9M729, with a then-prohibited range. With the US decision to scrap the INF Treaty, doors are now open for both sides to build longer-range rocket-boosted artillery shells and ground-launched hypersonic missiles.
Reaction from Russia and others
Reacting to the test of a new missile banned under a now-defunct arms treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw new threats to Russia and warned a response. Speaking with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Helsinki, Putin argued that the US had begun work on the missile long before declaring its intention to withdraw from the pact.
Now it is open to Russia also to work to design such weapons but Putin said Russia would not deploy the missiles previously banned by the INF Treaty to any area before the US does that first. Putin charged that US missile test was performed using a launcher similar to those stationed at a US missile defense site in Romania and argued that the Romanian facility and a prospective similar site in Poland could also be used for missiles intended to hit ground targets instead of interceptors.
Russia sees such tests as “the emergence of new threats” and resolved to respond appropriately. According to Putin, in light of these facts, Russia cannot be certain about what kinds of systems – defensive or offensive, the US will deploy in Romania and Poland. Flight times between these sites and major Russian cities amount to a matter of just minutes.
After junking the INF Treaty, President Trump now hopes to negotiate a new agreement that would replace the historic Cold War pact. Expressing concern, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that with the expiration of the treaty, the world loses “an invaluable brake on nuclear war” and that this “will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles”.
As the blame game escalated with the US complaining Russia turning a deaf ear to pleas from officials in Washington and in Europe to halt its violations of the treaty and Russia denying any such claims, Trump seems to have opened another frontier of damaging US-Russia bilateral ties after the acrimonious trade war with China, thereby opening another disruptive door that could damage world peace.
The pact remained as a pillar of European security for more than 30 years. It banned the development and deployment of ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,400 miles). With the US jettisoning the treaty, European leaders fear a renewed arms race. They have called therefore both Washington and Moscow to remain constructively engaged to try to preserve it.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz blamed Moscow for the treaty’s demise, but agreed with NATO that the response to Russia’s actions should be measured. NATO called for a defensive package of measures to deter Russia, but NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it would involve only conventional weapons and that “there would be no rash moves” by the alliance. There is also concern about the ramifications beyond Europe.
According to Laura Kennedy, a former US ambassador to Turkmenistan and former US permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, “the prospect of new ground-based INF systems being introduced in Asia could conceivably spark similar political turmoil among Asian allies”. Kennedy further observed that “even if the U.S. planned only to field such future systems on U.S.-territory such as Guam, such a move could be seen as threatening by China, which could respond by introducing a new wave of systems as a counter”.
Putin expressed disappointment with the US’ recent ground-based medium-range missile testing activities after completing its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. He ordered the defence ministry and ministry of foreign affairs to analyze the potential threats stemming from the US testing activities, and formulate an appropriate and symmetrical response. Russia firmly believes that claims of ‘Russian violations’ is just a cover for America’s own illegal actions.
Months ahead of the US withdrawal from the INF, Washington “organised a propaganda campaign about Russia’s alleged non-compliance with the provisions of the treaty”. It soon transpired that its only purpose, Putin believes, was to cover up the work being carried out by the US side in violation of the treaty and to justify its initial desire to scrap it.” Russia suspects that the US plans to deploy new ground-based intermediate-range missile systems, starting in the Asia-Pacific region that would affect Russia’s national security interests, given these systems’ proximity to Russia’s borders.
While Moscow would not rejoice with the prospect of a new costly arm race stemming from the US action, it would not be expected to remain oblivious of its own security considerations. Though in term of defence spending, Russia occupies a rather modest seventh place in the world after the US, China, Saudi Arabia, the UK, France and Japan, it has developed cutting-edge, “unparalleled” new hypersonic strategic missile systems, first unveiled in March 2018. Putin is candid in admitting that Moscow’s work on these systems “was caused by, or provoked, it could be said, by the US’s exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2003”.
Moscow argues that it was simply forced and obliged to ensure the security of its people and country. Russia is unlikely to undertake any change to such a policy. Putin says that Moscow, as always, remains ready for a “constructive dialogue” with Washington on the basis of mutual respect “to restore confidence and strengthen international security”.
Taking a tough stance, Putin ordered reciprocal Russian response to the US missile test after the INF’s demise. This was after the US tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, the first such since the US pulled out of the major arms control treaty with Russia on August 2. The US missile test, a version of the nuclear-capable Tomahawk cruise missile, coming weeks after Washington withdrew from the Cold War era missile control treaty is bound to raise fears of a revival of the arms race.
Impact on China
The demise of the INF Treaty is bad news for disarmament advocates. It could also be bad news for a nuclear-armed country such as China that was never bound by the pact. It is bad news for China because the treaty’s demise has stoked fears of a new arms race between the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.
China currently has the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal but was never a party to the 1987 agreement. Though Trump unilaterally scrapped the INF Treaty for Russia’s alleged violations, some of his officials have also pointed to the lack of restrictions on China’s missile programs. Given the on-going trade war between the US and China, analysts opine that Trump may now seek to prioritize deployment of conventional medium-range missiles near China rather than Russia. The US “has made it very clear” it is concerned its military position in the Asia Pacific region has been weakening with respect to China, and “it views the ability to place missiles in the region as a way to halt that trend.”
However, things are getting too complicated with fears and distrust increasing by the day. Given the short flight times of medium-range missiles, military and political leaders would have no time to react should one is fired hitting the intended target. Should the US place missiles in Asia, Russia could follow suit east of the Ural Mountains. That would be a headache for China, which has cordial relations with Moscow. Beijing has a series of medium-range missiles, mainly ballistic, that would fall under the treaty’s limitations. According to the Arms Control Association, Russia began to contemplate withdrawing from the INF Treaty last decade, arguing that the treaty restricts it from possessing the type of weapons that neighbors like China are deploying.
In order to prevent a missile buildup in Asia, Beijing urged Washington to stick to the agreement, despite US claims of Russian violations. “Given the relatively modest size of Beijing’s arsenal, the capability of any potential adversary to strike launch sites or nodes deep within Chinese territory would be an unwelcome development”. Though the US is ambivalent about deployment option of missiles in Europe and remains unclear which countries in Europe would agree to hosting them, the US allies in Asia have not been “rushing forward” to host any potential missiles.
The priority for the US could be to test ground-based missiles first and then put them on a truck to create a mobile land-based weapon. This would be a counter to Russia which has used truck-based mobile systems for its intercontinental ballistic missiles for years. Poland could be ready to host part of them to counter a Russian threat. Romania already hosts a US missile-defense system.
Moscow has argued that the technology used in that, and the proposed Polish system, known as Aegis BMD, or Aegis Ashore, violated aspects of the INF Treaty. There is no overwhelming opinion that endorses the view that deploying new US missiles to Eastern Europe would be wholly beneficial.
Jon Wolfsthal, a former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the White House National Security Council, observes: “If Washington places ground-based missiles in Europe, it could provoke Russia and lead to a new arms race. Deploying cruise missiles or ballistic missiles in European territory does not make America and NATO safer”. He further argued: “All it does is increase the risk that an escalation can spiral out of control quickly.” The issue of China’s missile system was no justification for the end of the treaty.
China has warned of countermeasures if the US puts missiles on its “doorsteps”. Fu Cong, director general of the arms control department at China’s foreign ministry, said Beijing “will not stand idly by” and watch the United States base missiles in Asia. He specifically mentioned Japan, South Korea, and Australia, warning it would not serve their national security interests. Fu did not specify how China would respond but said “everything will be on the table” if US allies made allowances for the missiles. At the same time, China is not prepared for any trilateral talks with the US and Russia as it perceived that the gap between the nuclear arsenals of China and the Russian Federation is huge, arguing that most of China’s missiles could not reach the US heartland.
Though the INF Treaty was considered a cornerstone of the global arms control architecture, the Trump administration felt that the bilateral pact had given other countries, namely China, free rein to develop their own long-range missiles. Beijing was irked by the remarks by Esper, the new Pentagon chief that the US would like to deploy missiles “sooner rather than later”. It is known that Beijing has been vying with Washington for influence in the region.
The rise of a militarily more assertive China in the region has worried traditional US allies such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea have alarmed neighbours with competing territorial claims to the strategic waterway. Though it remains unclear where the US wants to deploy the weapons, it is most likely that location for deployment would be the island of Guam, which hosts significant US military facilities.
Bickering at the UN
After the collapse of the INF Treaty, both the US and Russia traded accusations at the UN Security Council. The US envoy accused both Russia and China of developing their own warheads, and “continue their arms build-ups unabated and unabashed”, while the US exercised self-restraint and continued to fulfill its INF Treaty obligations. Both Russia and China were accused of upgrading and diversifying their nuclear weapons capabilities and that their arsenals are likely to grow significantly over the next decade. In retaliation, Russia and China accused Washington of wanting to “flex their muscles”.
Concern was expressed over the US’ geopolitical ambitions, which is behind the collapse of the INF treaty with the consequent specter of an arms race. While the US envoy claimed that there were no ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles, Russia had developed and deployed multiple battalions of such missiles. He also charged that China possessed approximately 2,000 missiles that would have been prohibited under the INF Treaty had China been a party to it. The Chinese ambassador Zhang Jun countered saying that using China as an excuse for leaving the treaty was “unacceptable” and therefore “rejects the baseless accusations by the United States”.
Zhang said China has a defensive military policy and its missiles are deployed within its territory. He urged Moscow and Washington to engage in dialogue to resolve their differences.
China, as well as several other council members, expressed concern that another disarmament agreement between Russia and the US – the nuclear arms reduction treaty known as New START – is due to expire in February 2021 and urged the parties to renew it. The European members of the Security Council, who are part of the NATO alliance, expressed support for the US position, each blaming Moscow for bearing the “sole responsibility” for the INF’s demise. Council members from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East avoided finger pointing, but expressed fears the treaty’s collapse would trigger a new arms race. They said Russia and the US have a special responsibility as nuclear powers and should cooperate.
Is the development post-INF Treaty the harbinger of the return of the doomsday? The challenge before the US, Russia and China and other stakeholders is how to stop the potentially developing new nuclear arms race? What is needed is tougher diplomacy and return of mutual trust. The problem is both are a rarity in contemporary complex world.