In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we say that the rivalry between Russia and the United States will not end anytime soon. Though U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of improving ties with Moscow, Congress has checked the president's power leaving few options available to alleviate the strained relationship. Similarly, the Russian elections slated for 2018 will keep Moscow from making major concessions to the West.
The United States is gearing up to increase pressure on Russia over what it claims are Moscow's flagrant violations of an important Cold War-era arms treaty. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a cornerstone 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 United States has accused Russia of developing, testing and deploying a 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. Last week, the U.S. State Department released a report in which it vehemently refuted Russia's claims. To pressure Moscow back into compliance with the treaty, the U.S. State Department also announced Dec. 8 that Washington was preparing to take military, diplomatic and economic measures over alleged infractions of the pivotal arms treaty.
To ensure conformity with the treaty, the United States will seek to work with its NATO partners to present a united front against Russia. Last month during the North Atlantic Council meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly presented NATO allies with an ultimatum: Either NATO acts jointly on punitive measures on Russia related to the INF violations by summer 2018 or Washington will move ahead unilaterally. Furthermore, U.S. Commerce Department is preparing new sanctions that will target Russian companies believed to be involved with developing weapons that violate the terms of the treaty. On the diplomatic front, the United States and Russia will meet this week as part of the Special Verification Commission to potentially address the U.S. accusations. However, past meetings on the same issue have failed to produce any breakthroughs.
Finally, the United States could pressure Russia militarily. For instance, the U.S. Congress has moved toward authorizing funds for the development of a U.S. missile that if fielded would violate the INF treaty. (Though, for now, the United States would develop the missile but not deploy it.) In addition, Washington is also looking into increasing its force deployments in Europe as well as expanding its missile defenses as a response. If the United States elects to ratchet up the pressure even further, it could then test and deploy its own missiles that violate the treaty.
The fragility of the INF highlights the fraying legacy of an arms control framework left over from the Cold War. Complicating matters, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) will expire in 2021, and the dispute around the INF could impair negotiations over New START's renewal. If the dispute over INF ends up undermining New START, that would further exacerbate an already unstable arms control regime and lead to a significant new arms race between the United States and Russia that could even extend to other nations.