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A new Cold War in the offing?
On October 20, President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, announced that he would withdraw his country from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Trump’s sudden decision follows a years-long US-Russian dispute about whether Moscow has developed and deployed a prohibited missile, known by its apparent Russian designation 9M729. President Trump and his hard-line aides, particularly his National Security Adviser, John R. Bolton, have long expressed their displeasure with the agreement because, they say, Russia is in violation of the terms and China is not a signatory. Announcing his decision, Trump said, Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and they say, ‘Let’s all of us get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons’, America would pull out and start building new nuclear arms.”
President Donald Trump announced his intention to exit the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty” with Russia on the fringes of a campaign rally. He unequivocally announced that “Russia has not, unfortunately, honoured the agreement, so we are going to terminate the agreement, and we are going to pull out.” But, while the US President lashed out at Moscow, the real target of his INF move is likely China. Indeed, Trump says the treaty creates a military asymmetry between the United States and the Chinese giant, which is not an INF signatory and has a considerable arsenal of medium-range and intermediate-range cruise and ballistic projectiles.
There is a backstory to Trump’s impromptu announcement. It began in 2014, when the Obama administration first officially claimed that Moscow had violated the accord by producing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile not covered by the treaty. Then, the US argued that the cruise missile version SSC-8 Iskander-K is in violation of the INF Treaty because its estimated range – though unspecified – is beyond 500 km. Russia is also accused of having tested its RS-26 Rubezh missile – otherwise claimed to be long-range ICBM – at distances that violated INF guidelines. The US has maintained in every annual State Department report on arms control compliance since 2014 that Moscow is in violation of the INF treaty.
The Kremlin rejected the charge, but Washington was not convinced. In return, Russia censures the US of violating the INF Treaty because of its development of target missiles (the Hera) with a range of 1000 kilometres, armed drones which could be flown at ranges restricted under INF, and MK-41 missile launching systems installed in Romania and Poland as part of the American European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defence system.
Is Withdrawal in America’s Interest?
Steven Pifer, a former top State Department official and US ambassador to Ukraine who was also a part of the US team that negotiated the INF Treaty in the 1980s, opines against it. He says, “President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty now is a mistake … It will cause division within NATO — senior German, French and Italian officials have already questioned it — and the United States will be blamed for the treaty’s demise, despite the Russian violation.”
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Pifer added that the main beneficiary of a US exit will not be Washington, but Moscow: “Once the treaty lapses, Russia will be free to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles for which the United States currently has no counterpart.” But even if the US developed such a weapon, he noted, it would be doubtful that NATO would reach consensus to deploy it in Europe.
Can Europe Press Trump to Remain in INF?
Europe should and must do so, say the scholars, even though the track record of European leaders trying to change Trump’s mind on exiting international accords is bleak – as evidenced by the US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal and the Iran nuclear agreement.
What’s more, Europe has long been asleep at the wheel regarding Russia’s Treaty violations and a possible INF exit by the Trump administration, which has been rumoured for some time, argue the experts.
Their reluctance to address the issue earlier also means that they now will have less credibility to try to persuade Washington to stay in the Treaty because the Trump administration can say now “If you didn’t care enough to raise the Russian violation at high levels with Russia, why do you care that we are withdrawing?”
A New Cold War?
Today, the “unipolar moment” has vanished and we are in what can only be described as a tripolar world. When it comes to relations between Donald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Xi Jinping’s China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past – a Cold War. And, recent steps by leaders in Washington, Moscow and Beijing seem to lend credence to such a “new Cold War” narrative, but in this case, history is no guide. Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, what we face is not some mildly updated replica of last century’s Cold War, but a new and potentially even more dangerous global predicament.
A noted Russia analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer opines that “we have a new Cold War, so the treaties that ended the previous one are irrelevant because they correspond to a totally different world situation. That means it was most likely inevitable that they would go down the drain.”
All three countries, in characteristic Cold War fashion, are also lining up allies in what increasingly looks like a global power struggle. All of them possess outsized military establishments with vast arrays of conventional and nuclear weapons. China and Russia have now joined the United States in extending their influence beyond their borders diplomatically, economically and militarily. More importantly, all three rivals are led by highly nationalistic leaders, each determined to advance his country’s interests.
The mere fact that three major nuclear powers are now constantly jostling for position and advantage over significant parts of the planet only increases the possibility of clashes that could trigger a catastrophic escalatory spiral.
Russian and A New Treaty
In the immediate future, America has nothing to gain militarily from denouncing INF, but Russia has a lot to gain. Russia has developed and apparently deployed — though not many — cruise missiles based on modified launchers even though they were not tested by ground launchers. “We have tested [missile modification] and we have deployed that and we are ready to deploy them as soon as INF is out of circulation. The Americans don’t have anything to deploy that is prohibited by the Treaty. In the future, the US could begin developing missiles if INF goes, but that will take years to be realized.
Russia already deploys the same type of missiles on frigates, cruisers, corvettes and submarines, but if the INF is gone, we’ll be able to deploy them on trucks, and a truck is much cheaper than a frigate and it’s easier to hide. It makes a lot of sense for Russia to abandon the INF. Putin and Russian generals have been denouncing it since 2007,” says Pavel.
China’s Strategic Missile Advantage
In April 2017, the former commander of the US forces in the Pacific, Harry Harris, warned the US Senate that the US had “no comparable capability” to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rocket force because of US’ adherence to the INF treaty.
“The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles,” said Harris, adding that China was investing heavily in advanced missile technology and was organized for missions that could strike Taiwan and US military targets based on the island of Guam.
Harris added that 95 percent of PLARF missiles would violate the INF if China was included in the treaty.
“China has developed numerous ground- and air-launched missile systems that far outrange US systems,” said Harris in his statement. “Constrained in part by our adherence to the INF treaty, the US has fallen behind in our ability to match the long-range fire capabilities of the new era.”
Undermining National and International Law
“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land….”
— Article VI, US Constitution (The Supremacy Clause)
Ipso facto, treaties entered into by the United States represent the “supreme law of the land.” This core codification at Article 6 of the US Constitution is authoritatively known as the “Supremacy Clause,” and prohibits a US president from unilaterally abrogating such law according to his own particular whims of the moment or to some entirely personal caprice. Although Mr Trump still seems wholly unaware of the fact, the US chief executive is not the only constitutionally established branch of government.
A key question must now be raised again: can this particular president be expected to cope capably and honestly with pertinent and complex overlapping challenges of nuclear strategy and international law?
To reply, Mr Trump’s analytic and jurisprudential debilities continue to be reasonably concerning. Such understandable apprehension becomes still more noteworthy when this President’s relevant shortcomings are: (1) considered intersecting and reinforcing; and (2) considered together with Trump’s persistent and willing subservience to the Russian president in the midst of “Cold War II”; and (3) assessed within the formal statutory and Constitutional parameters of US nuclear command authority.
In essence, some of the cumulative security risks America faces under its current president are potentially immediate and prospectively existential. More precisely, the principal risks to US and allied security are distressingly tangible and multi-sided. These risks could become especially high during any upcoming instances of competitive risk-taking with Vladimir Putin. These are instances when each side would be seeking some sort of necessary “escalation dominance.”
US withdrawal from the INF Treaty will provide impetus to the Trump administration to renounce continuation of the New START Treaty, which is due to expire in 2021. Moreover, withdrawal from such restrictive initiatives – as presumed by the Trump administration – will contribute to the US agenda of modernization of its nuclear triad, as spelt out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. Such developments will greatly affect strategic stability between Russia and the US. Prospective arms race between both will impinge significantly on the security of US allies in Europe and will also increase challenges for the US extended deterrence commitments – further pushing the European allies away.
The US and Russian actions like these would embolden other states to take the global arms control mechanisms for granted. These actions by the world’s leading powers would provide impetus to States getting into agreements when it suits them and getting out when it serves their interests – disregarding the overall damage done to the international norms necessary for global peace and security.
Nonetheless, the US withdrawal from INF Treaty could act as the last straw leading to the breakdown of international arms control framework and will be one step backward when it comes to strengthening global nuclear non-proliferation regime. The US is gradually slipping from its mantle of world leader by undoing the very international norms, it helped build.
If one party reneges on a treaty, the other has no obligation to remain bound. But to abandon the treaty without careful diplomatic preparation is unwise. The US should first try to get Russia to comply — and to bring in China as well. There might be little hope of success in either case, but making the effort, and being seen to make it, is a strategic necessity.
If the US were to develop new land-based intermediate-range missiles — which, by the way, would demand substantial new funding — it would need allies willing to help deploy them. Persuading European partners to cooperate would be difficult in any event, but if the Trump administration is seen as the wrecker of a landmark arms-control treaty, it will be next to impossible.
Giving Russia one last chance to comply, while leaving the world in no doubt that it has in fact cheated, would improve the prospects of success. There would be no cost in terms of readiness, because the Treaty-compliant R&D for a new weapon could move ahead regardless. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has said he wants to extend the New START nuclear-weapons treaty that is due to expire in 2021: Talks on both treaties could proceed hand-in-hand.
A similar calculation applies to China. Someday, the US might find it useful to position conventionally armed, land-based intermediate-range weapons to counter the threat posed by China’s deployments. The INF Treaty, which applies to both nuclear and conventional ground-based missiles, rules this out. But if the US were to abandon the Treaty, it would still need allies willing to help deploy the weapons. A sincere and visible effort now to fold China into a cooperative arms-control regime, even if it is far from certain to succeed, would make it easier to get that support later.
Not for the first time, Trump is setting the value of US allies at zero. It is the most dangerous of his many errors. The US needed allies to win the first Cold War, and it will need them to prevail in years ahead. A far-sighted administration would not walk away from the INF as though allies don’t count.
All you need to know about INF Treaty
Name: The “Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the elimination of their Intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles,” also known as “the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” or “INF Treaty”
Signed: It was signed on December 8, 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
Background: The INF Treaty has its origins in the Euromissile crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20, an advanced and accurate missile that could strike most of Europe from deep within Russia alarmed Europe.
Aim: The INF treaty sought to destroy both countries’ ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (300 to 3,400 miles), their launchers and associated support structures and support equipment.
Success: It resolved a crisis of the 1980s when the Soviet Union deployed a missile in Europe called the SS-20, capable of carrying three nuclear warheads. The United States responded with cruise and Pershing II missiles. It contributed to the end of the Cold War and played a significant role in reducing the global arms race. The INF also opened the door for other historic nuclear disarmament treaties to be pursued through diplomatic channels.
As a result of the INF treaty, the United States and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,696 short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles by the Treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991.
Note: The INF Treaty was the first US-Soviet agreement aimed at reducing the superpowers’ nuclear arsenal, and allow on-site inspections to verify the destruction of the missiles. It remained in force after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.