As long expected, the U.S. officially withdrew Friday from the 32-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, triggering a reciprocal withdrawal from Moscow and leaving both parties free to deploy ground-based missiles with a range of 310 miles to 3,100 miles anywhere in the world.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made the announcement early Friday in a press release, six months after he said the U.S. would withdraw from the Cold War-pact that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons in Europe.
“[T]he United States has determined Russia to be in material breach of the treaty, and has subsequently suspended our obligations under the treaty,” Pompeo said in the statement, adding that “Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise” after developing, testing and deploying “multiple battalions” of the 9M729 cruise missile.
Russia on Friday continued to deny the 9M729 violated the treaty and accused the U.S. of breaching the accord by deploying missile-defense systems in Europe.
“By launching a propaganda campaign based on deliberately misleading information on what was presented as violations of the INF Treaty by Russia, the United States intentionally plunged the Treaty into a crisis that was almost impossible to overcome,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an English-language statement. “The cause is however clear: the United States wanted to free itself from the existing restrictions.”
The U.S. believes Russia has been violating the 1987 treaty since 2008, when Moscow allegedly started developing the since-deployed 9M729. The Obama administration publicly accused Russia of breaching the accord in 2014. The treaty covered nuclear- and conventional-armed missiles.
For now, neither country has said publicly it will field new nuclear-armed, intermediate range missiles: in precise INF terms, those with a flight range between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. Congress has already approved funding for the Pentagon to research missiles in the INF range.
Developing such a weapon after the lapse of the treaty is “just kind of prudent military planning,” Navy Vice Adm. David Kriete, deputy commander of all U.S. nuclear forces at the interservice U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters Wednesday during a teleconference.
Russia, in its Friday statement, said it “will not deploy land-based intermediate-range or shorter-range missiles, should we acquire any, in the regions where the United States will not deploy its intermediate-range or shorter-range missiles.”
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, marked the news of the treaty’s demise with language virtually identical to Pompeo’s.
“Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty,” Stoltenberg said in NATO’s statement about the U.S. withdrawal. “NATO will respond in a measured and responsible way to the significant risks posed by the Russian 9M729 missile to Allied security.”
New START Stands Alone
The official end of the INF Treaty renewed speculation and hand-wringing over the fate of the last remaining major nuclear-arms treaty between the U.S. and Russia, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The pact will expire in February 2021, but the nations’ presidents may extend it, once only, for five years.
Ratified during the Barack Obama administration, New START caps U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warheads at 1,550 on 700 fielded delivery systems. The treaty covers nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, either land- or sea-based, and bomber aircraft. The pact also allows the U.S. to inspect Russia’s nuclear forces, and vice versa.
“Those verification procedures … provide great insight into Russia’s capabilities, numbers and all kinds of things that are associated with their nuclear weapons,” Kriete told reporters Wednesday. “We like the idea of arms control agreements particularly with Russia, that provide us with some level of assurance that there’s at least a portion of their nuclear forces that are capped,” he added.
The Trump administration aspires to replace New START with a trilateral treaty that encompasses the U.S., Russia, and China, and puts limits on shorter-range, lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons and exotic nuclear weapons such as autonomous submarines.
China, which has far fewer nuclear weapons than Washington or Moscow, has said it will not sign such a treaty.
This week, John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser and an avowed opponent of arms control treaties, repeated his prediction that New START is unlikely to last beyond 2021.
Pompeo has not weighed in on the issue lately, but said in May that a trilateral follow-on to New START might be “too ambitious in the short term.”
Congress has this year produced multiple bills that touch in some way on New START, from simply urging its extension to requiring reports on its importance to national security. The latest, introduced this week by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), would do both.
Trump would have to sign the bill for it to become law. Before that, the measure would have to be brought to the Senate floor by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who opposed New START.
This story first appeared in Defense Daily affiliate publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor.