Oct 3, 2018 | 18:15 GMT

3 mins read

U.S., Russia: The Rivals Threaten to Abandon a Key Nuclear Treaty

The Big Picture

Longstanding strategic disagreements between Russia and the United States are increasingly threatening a crucial arms control agreement. Its demise, particularly if it comes about in a divisive manner that spikes mistrust, could have far-reaching consequences for arms buildups and global stability.

What Happened

In a speech on Oct. 2 in Brussels, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison demanded that Russia return to complying with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty or else the United States would be forced to develop its own non-INF-compliant weapons to match Russian capabilities. In response, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that "It seems that people who make such statements do not realize the level of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric."

Some Background on the INF

The INF Treaty is a key arms control pact between the United States and Russia that halted a destabilizing buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe during the 1980s. The pact served as a cornerstone in efforts to end the Cold War. Recently, however, the United States has accused Russia of developing, testing and deploying a type of cruise missile that violates the limits set by the INF, and Moscow in turn has accused Washington of deploying drones and missile launchers that violate the terms of the treaty.

Over the past year, the United States has tried various tactics to get Russia to comply with the treaty. Washington has sanctioned Russian officials and tried to pressure Moscow by deploying tactical nuclear weapons aboard its submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The U.S. Congress has also passed legislation that would pave the way for the development of a missile that, if fielded, would violate the INF treaty. None of these measures appear to have worked yet; the United States and its NATO allies insist that the Russians are still in violation of the treaty.

Why It Matters

Hutchinson's statements show that the White House is clearly determined to follow Congress' lead in considering the deployment of U.S. missiles that violate the INF. The first open INF violations from both the United States and Russia will likely lead to many more violations that could kill the already fragile treaty. The demise of the INF would further catalyze a budding and potentially highly destabilizing arms race between the United States and peer competitors Russia and China. It would also be deeply alarming to Washington's European allies, who would once again sit between Russian and U.S. intermediate range nuclear missile arsenals, just as they did during the Cold War.

An additional concern is that an ugly fight over the status of the INF could spill over into negotiations for the renewal of the other big global nuclear arms control treaty: the New START treaty, which limits the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launchers. Unlike the INF, New START is nominally on much surer ground, as Russia and the United States both already have so many strategic nuclear weapons that there are few major incentives to violate it. However, mistrust from the demise of the INF could potentially erode New START anyway. This outcome, although unlikely for now, would lead to a far more serious arms race than is currently taking place.

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