The Trump Administration announced Feb. 1 it was withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
“We can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the announcement.
Pompeo pledged to terminate the agreement in six months time should the Russians refuse to acquiesce and dismantle their recently-constructed arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and launchers.
The bombshell decision, followed by Russia’s announcement Tuesday that it plans to construct land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles within the next two years, sparked a genuine concern that a new arms race has arrived.
The original INF treaty signed between the United States and the Soviet Union banned short- and medium-range missiles. Four years after it was signed, nearly 2,700 missiles had been destroyed.
While intercontinental ballistic missiles are rightfully feared due to their ability to strike practically any target on the planet, intermediate-range ballistic missiles are equally lethal and have far shorter flight time, giving the target country far less time to react and attempt to shoot the missile down.
There has been rampant speculation as to why the Trump Administration decided to withdraw from the INF treaty now. One theory is that amidst billowing tensions in the South China Sea, the United States felt constrained by the INF treaty and decided to use Russia’s transgressions as a justification to begin development of its own intermediate-range ballistic arsenal to deter the Chinese, who were never constrained by the INF treaty.
However, the restrictions imposed by the INF treaty hardly hinder the United States’ capacity to deter any potential Chinese aggression. It is estimated in 2018 that the United States possessed 6550 nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association. This far exceeds the 280 nuclear weapons China was estimated to have last year. Moreover, the United States has far superior conventional forces, as well.
In an article for the National Interest, David Axe wrote that “the INF Treaty hasn’t prevented the U.S. military from maintaining an overwhelming advantage over the People’s Liberation Army,” and that “scrapping INF won’t necessarily help the United States to expand its military lead any more than staying in the treaty limited America’s power relative to China.”
Another potential reason for why the Trump Administration may have felt inclined to leave the INF agreement was the news that Russia will deploy a class of hypersonic ballistic missiles. Putin lauded these as being “invulnerable” to any of the United States’ current anti-missile technology.
This new technology presents a serious problem to the United States’ missile defense system, in which it has invested heavily.
Paul Craig Roberts, assistant secretary of the treasury for economic policy under former President Ronald Reagan, said in an article in Sputnik International that “Russia’s new hypersonic missiles make the missile shield obsolete, and Washington’s response is to tear up the intermediate range missile treaty (INF) so that missiles can be placed on Russia’s borders, thus precluding any reaction time.”
The move could also be purely political rather than strategic, as President Donald Trump may see the withdrawal from the INF as a way to solidify his reputation as an independent-minded foreign policy thinker, unwilling to impinge the United States’ sovereignty by signing restrictive international agreements.
Moreover, this breach with Russia grants credence to Trump’s claim that he is not an unwitting Russian agent.
Regardless of the Trump Administration’s true rationalization for tearing up the INF treaty, it is undeniable that the international climate is growing tense, and the fears of a renewed arms race are palpable.
The underlying question in this development is whether or not the Trump Administration’s announcement last week truly mattered. While it is undeniable the announcement created a great amount of concern, growing tensions between Russia and the United States existed regardless.
Afterall, there has been evidence that Russia has violated the INF treaty since 2014. From this point of view, the INF treaty hasn’t been effective for five years and the United States’ decision to withdraw from the treaty was merely a recognition of reality.
While indeed this may be the case, the manner in which the Trump Administration withdrew from the treaty is disconcerting, as the ultimatum Pompeo gave Moscow will certainly escalate tensions rather than provide a rational solution to the issue.
The rest of the world will undoubtedly interpret the United States as the aggressor, believing the U.S. left the treaty to expand its own IRBM arsenal. While it very well may be true that Russia did violate the INF treaty, the United States will be the one to carry the blame for its disintegration.