A U.S.-Russian Arms Treaty Could Be in Trouble

3 MINS READSep 28, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
A U.S.-Russian Arms Treaty Could Be in Trouble
U.S. President Ronald Reagan (R) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (L) signing a treaty eliminating U.S. and Soviet intermediate- and short-range nuclear missiles in Washington, D.C. in December 1987.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia is feeling increasingly limited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty as the United States continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal and develop its ballistic missile defenses. The United States also finds the treaty constraining, but neither Moscow nor Washington wants to be the first to withdraw from the pact.

Russia on Sept. 23 criticized the United States' planned deployment of upgraded B61-12 guided nuclear bombs to Germany, once again raising the threat of withdrawing from the 1987 INF treaty as a response to U.S. moves. The INF bans ground-based nuclear or conventional intermediate-range missiles (500 to 5,500 kilometers, or 300 to 3,400 miles). Though the U.S. deployment of B61-12 nuclear weapons to Germany does not violate the INF treaty, Moscow is increasingly viewing the pact as a limitation.

The INF pact is a cornerstone arms control treaty between the United States and Russia that halted a destabilizing buildup of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe during the 1980s. However, the treaty also constrained both U.S. and Russian options. Even as influential camps in the United States and Russia fear the treaty's dissolution and a return to a dangerous arms race in Europe, other voices in both countries desiring to abandon or revise it are growing louder.

The INF treaty has especially restricted U.S. policy in East Asia, forcing the United States to rely on air- and sea-launched missiles to counter China's vast and growing land-based missile arsenal. The Russians are even more concerned with the INF, because the treaty places them at a disadvantage relative to the United States in missile defense and modernized scalable nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, the INF, as a bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia, does not stop countries around Russia such as China, India and North Korea from developing intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Unlike the continental United States, which is beyond the range of these missiles, Russia has to factor in these potential threats even as the New START Treaty limits its strategic nuclear arsenal (in any case largely aimed at the United States). 

Frustrated by the INF treaty but fearing its dissolution, the United States and Russia have sought to find ways around it. Russia may have already breached the INF pact with the development of the R-500 ground-based cruise missile, as well as the testing of the SS-27 Mod 2 intercontinental ballistic missile at ranges prohibited by the INF treaty. The United States has also pursued other avenues to overcome the treaty's limitations, expanding its sea-launched missile arsenal, building up missile defenses and pursuing Prompt Global Strike technology that makes up for a longer-ranged strike envelope with high speed and accuracy.

Russia and the United States are each hesitant to be the first to withdraw from the INF pact, but it is clear that the treaty as a whole is weakening as time passes. Threats of withdrawal from the treaty, especially from Moscow, are becoming more common, and it may be just a matter of time until the treaty is effectively terminated or heavily revised. The demise of the foundational arms control treaty may give both sides more military options, but it will undoubtedly exacerbate an already tense relationship between Moscow and Washington.

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