As Trump moves to dump INF Treaty, some fear new nuclear arms race

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk to each other during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser has met with top Russian officials after Trump declared he intended to pull out of a 1987 nuclear weapons treaty. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

The Trump administration appears to be moving forward with abandoning a decades-old nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, a decision that some see as a natural reaction to Moscow’s ongoing flaunting of the pact but others worry could plunge the world into a new nuclear arms race.

According to Axios, National Security Adviser John Bolton communicated President Donald Trump’s intent to terminate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to Russian Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev at the start of a two-day visit to Moscow Monday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who also met with Bolton, told reporters the U.S. had not yet officially triggered the withdrawal process.

"It was underlined that its abrogation would deal a serious blow to the entire international system of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control," Russia’s National Security Council said in a statement.

President Trump told reporters Saturday he intended to walk away from the deal because “we're not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons we're not allowed to."

President Ronald Reagan signed the agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 after extensive negotiations, prohibiting the development of land-based missiles with a range between about 300 and 3,400 miles. It led to the destruction of more than 2,500 missiles.

“The treaty was negotiated during a time of tremendous tension, not to mention uproar in Europe about the deployment of U.S. missiles, but it really helped prevent an arms race in that arena and it really helped ratchet down the Cold War,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the global security program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It was both technically and politically significant. And I think going in the opposite direction and junking it is also technically and politically significant, only in the wrong direction.”

There is little dispute among experts that Russia has been violating the treaty for years and that attempts to stop it from doing so under President Barack Obama were unsuccessful. However, critics charge that the Trump administration has made no sincere effort to resolve the issue diplomatically, opting instead for drastic action without considering the consequences.

“There’s no doubt Russia is in violation and has been for some time now,” said Alexandra Bell, a former State Department arms control official. “It’s been a struggle getting them to first during the Obama administration admit the missile we were talking about even existed… They’re still denying the violation but at least we’re talking in concrete terms now.”

At issue is Russia’s development and deployment of a ground-launched cruise missile known as the 9M729 that is believed to be capable of flying within the prohibited range. The Obama administration publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty four years ago, but concerns about compliance had been raised as early as 2008.

The Kremlin has accused the U.S. of breaking the agreement as well—by developing the Aegis Missile Defense System, ballistic target missiles, and armed unmanned aerial vehicles—but the State Department has flatly rejected that claim.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. and Russia have not met to discuss this in any way that would indicate a real drive to fix the problems with the treaty,” said Bell, now senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “The Russians have accused us of violating the treaty. Those accusations don’t really hold water but they do represent a stumbling block.”

The Nuclear Posture Review released by the Trump administration in February called for researching new ground-launched missiles to pressure Russia to comply with the treaty. Threatening to exit the agreement may be another attempt to check Russia’s proliferation efforts.

“It’s really a measure of what you think can push the Russians back into compliance and what moves benefit the U.S. position on a global level,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Initial domestic and international reaction to the president’s announcement has been mixed. Some Republicans have applauded it, while others have joined Democrats in expressing skepticism.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Fox News it was “absolutely the right move," but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told the station it was “a big, big mistake to flippantly get out of this historic agreement.”

As with many of President Trump’s threats, some have suggested the proposed withdrawal is merely a negotiating tactic aimed at pressuring Russia to accept changes to the deal.

"Maybe this is just a move to say, look ... if you don't straighten up we're moving out of this... And I hope that's the case,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, comparing it to the president’s handling of NAFTA negotiations.

Among NATO allies, France and Germany have urged caution but the British government voiced support for Trump’s stance.

“Our close and long-term ally of course is the United States and we will be absolutely resolute with the United States in hammering home a clear message that Russia needs to respect the treaty obligation that it signed,” British Foreign Minister Gavin Williamson said Sunday, according to The Independent.

A European Union spokesperson warned the move could result in “a new arms race that would benefit no one.”

“While we expect the Russian Federation to address serious concerns regarding its compliance with the INF Treaty in a substantial and transparent way, we also expect the United States to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world,” the European Union spokesperson said.

Under the terms of the agreement, formally withdrawing will take six months, and assuming no new deal is reached before then, what happens next is unclear. If this standoff does dissolve into a new arms race, Russia’s persistent violations of the treaty have given it a head start.

“The million-dollar question is, what has been Russia’s ultimate intention? … What is the Russian end-game here?” Taleblu said.

The answer to that question will determine who the winner in this standoff is. The president’s allies have embraced the planned withdrawal as the latest in a series of aggressive steps to counter Russian malfeasance, but critics see it as a gift to Putin, who would be freed from the need to maintain an appearance of compliance.

“Russia engaging in this sort of needlessly provocative behavior is not a good idea long-term,” Bell said, “but by withdrawing from this treaty…we’ve just made it easier for them to do this. They were taking great pains to hide this violation. I can’t believe our best option is to let them have a free hand.”

Gronlund suggested other steps could have been taken short of withdrawing from the treaty that might not carry such severe long-term implications for both countries.

“There are people in the administration who don’t want to have their hands tied, they don’t want any constraints on U.S. weapons, which is one way to approach national security,” she said. “Another way is yeah, you accept constraints, but in return you get constraints on the other party, as well as verification.”

The withdrawal would also add another dimension to a potential military escalation in the Asia-Pacific region, as the U.S. is freed to build more intermediate-range weapons to place there.

“There already is a bit of a new nuclear arms race under way as new systems and technologies are being put in place while the post-Cold War dividend appears to have been spent. But this decision accelerates the trend and further indicates that the arms race will be not only with Russia but China as well,” said Miles Pomper, a senior fellow with James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Opponents of the treaty have long warned it could place the U.S. at a disadvantage in responding to China’s aggressions in the Pacific because it is not similarly constrained in its weapons development. U.S. military officials have said much of China’s current ballistic and cruise missile arsenal falls into the prohibited range.

"The INF treaty was rightly viewed as a remarkable achievement by President Reagan when it was ratified over 30 years ago. But today, the Russians are openly cheating, and the Chinese are stockpiling missiles because they're not bound by it at all. I've long called for the U.S. to consider whether this treaty still serves our national interest,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in a statement Friday.

However, questioned by Cotton about China’s weapons at a hearing last July, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ground-based missiles that violate the treaty would not be necessary to protect against them.

“It would be easy to interpret that as an offensive imbalance but for that fact that we are not restricted from fielding ballistic missile or cruise missile systems that could be launched from ships or airplanes under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Selva said.

Others say the move to withdraw from the treaty is driven less by Russia’s actions or China’s militarization than by Bolton’s personal disdain for this and other international agreements.

“Not clear how much of a constraint this is—given it doesn't prohibit sea-based missiles, which would seem more important,” Pomper said. “However, John Bolton and his aides don't like such treaties to begin with so any constraints chafe.”

Bolton has publicly advocated trashing the INF Treaty for years, arguing in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed that it left the U.S. vulnerable to Iranian missiles. Bolton also reportedly resisted engaging with Russia on renewing the 2010 New START Treaty that limits the use of strategic nuclear warheads, but he and Patrushev reportedly discussed a possible five-year extension Monday.

Even before Bolton came on board, Trump had already pulled out of several agreements, and some experts fear adding one more to the list will make it harder to negotiate new ones.

“The U.S. abandoning yet another international agreement is not going to be seen kindly by our allies and observers abroad,” Bell said. “We seem to be going out of our way to destroy an international order that was made in our own image.”

President Trump is planning a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the months ahead to discuss dismantling Kim’s nuclear weapons program. His administration is still attempting to pressure Iran into accepting new restrictions on its malign activities.

“Without a demonstration that we have done everything in our power to get the Russians back into compliance, there’s no reason to believe we wouldn’t find similar reasons to leave other agreements,” Bell said.

Taleblu acknowledged Tehran or Pyongyang might someday cite this withdrawal as a talking point, but he argued the message it really sends is that the Trump administration will not accept or prolong an agreement that does not serve its interests.

“I think the overriding lesson here is clear: the U.S. does not tolerate violations and the U.S. will not normatively stay in agreements because agreements are good to have,” Taleblu said.

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