The INF Treaty Is History and the World Less Safe, Expert Says

August 2, 2019 by HJ Mai
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

The United States on Friday officially withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, more commonly referred to as the INF Treaty. This Cold War-era arms control agreement was hailed as historic at the time of its signing and resulted in the destruction of thousands of missiles in the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. 

The end of the INF Treaty is not only a blow to US-Russian relations, but a security concern for Europe and the rest of the word, according to Sharon Ann Squassoni, research professor at George Washington University and a nuclear arms control expert.

“At the height of the Cold War, we had 70,000 nuclear weapons between us,” Squassoni told The Well News. “We don’t have that anymore. But let me tell you, 14,000 are enough to obliterate quite a few countries. Is it marginally safer? Yes. Are we still threatened with nuclear annihilation? Yes. And no one should forget that.”

The landmark agreement, which was signed by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, banned all ground-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with a range of 310 miles to 3,420 miles. 

President Donald Trump announced in October that the U.S. would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty due to Russia’s continued violations of the agreement. On Feb. 2, Washington formally suspended its obligations under the Treaty and triggered a six-month withdrawal process, providing Moscow with the opportunity to return to compliance. 

“The United States will not remain party to a treaty that is deliberately violated by Russia.  Russia’s noncompliance under the treaty jeopardizes U.S. supreme interests as Russia’s development and fielding of a treaty-violating missile system represents a direct threat to the United States and our allies and partners,” the U.S. Department of State said in a news release on Friday. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also blamed Russia for the demise of the Treaty Friday.

 “We regret that Russia showed no willingness and took no steps to comply with its international obligations,” Stoltenberg said. “No international agreement is effective if it is only respected by one side. Russia bears the sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty.”

The alliance said it does not want to engage in a new arms race and has no intentions to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe. 

Squassoni, whose previous positions include director of policy coordination at the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, said the lack of public and political uproar in Europe over the treaty’s end surprised her.

“No one’s hair is on fire over this,” she said. “And yet, remember that the stationing of Pershing and the cruise missiles in the ‘80s was a huge political debate in Germany and other countries. I’m really at a loss to understand why people aren’t as concerned because I think they should be quite concerned.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement that a “piece of Europe’s security has been lost” with the end of the INF Treaty. 

Despite Friday’s termination of one of the most significant treaties between the East and West, the U.S. government said it remains committed to effective, verifiable and enforceable arms control. 

“President Trump has charged this Administration with beginning a new chapter by seeking a new era of arms control that moves beyond the bilateral treaties of the past,” the State Department said. 

Trump previously indicated that China should be involved in future arms control negotiations. Squassoni, however, believes that there is no real appetite in the Trump administration for arms control. 

“I do not believe that they have an agenda at all to push arms control anywhere … and if they have a plan, it’s not very coherent,” she said.

Squassoni warned the end of the INF Treaty could also be the beginning of the end of another arms control measure the Trump administration has so far shown no intention to extend — START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which will expire in 2021.

“In an environment where the propensity for misinformation floating around is much greater, I think arms control can inject more stability, so I would say it’s even more important [today],” she said.

Russia on Friday accused the U.S. of intentionally creating an insurmountable crisis around the INF Treaty to prompt its termination. 

“The reason is clear, the United States wanted to get rid of limitations set out in the deal,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Given the current U.S. leadership and the geopolitical environment, the future of arms control is “really hard to predict,” according to Squassoni. 

“[Arms control may not be always successful,] but at a bare minimum, it might lengthen the fuse.”

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