No Longer Tip Toeing Around Russian Nuclear Threats

With President Trump claiming to withdraw from the INF Treaty with Russia due to continuous violations, the repercussions will not be as detrimental as expected.

by Lisa Teno

In the past three weeks, President Trump and his administration has announced their intentions to pull out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The agreement, originally signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, called for the elimination of ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from five hundred kilometers to five thousand-five hundred kilometers. It was the first treaty that aimed to effectively eradicate an entire class of missiles, as opposed to the previously signed Strategic Arms Limitation Talks which only resulted in the limitation of the involved nation’s number of nuclear weapons. Even with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the INF treaty still exists between the United States and independent Russia today. 

President Trump has sent National Security Adviser John Bolton – who has always been an expressive advocate of arms control between the two nations – to Moscow in the last week of October to relay the United States’ recent decision to no longer partake in the treaty. The United States has accused Russia of not observing the rules of the treaty as early as 2008. It became an official issue in July 2014 when President Obama formally held Russia accountable for testing intermediate ballistic missiles, thereby violating the branches of the agreement. Since then, the United States has noted violations against Russia and demanded a more secure compliance. The Russians have refuted every claim of wrongdoing and has gone so far to accuse the United States of being in violation of the treaty themselves. However, these accusations against the U.S are weakly backed up, given that the United States has focused much less on intermediate range missiles and almost exclusively on long range strategic weapons. President Trump has claimed the United States will not stand idly by while countries like Russia and China (who is not part of the INF treaty) develop and test these restricted weapons, claiming the US will not be the only one to adhere to the bilateral treaty.  

Many influential leaders such as German foreign minister Heiko Maas argue that the United States pulling out of the treaty would cause a serious disruption in the European security system. He claims that because of the already existing tensions between the United States and Russia, involving the 2016 election interference debacle and the Ukrainian Crisis, it would just add to the distrust. The Washington Post is supportive of Maas and claims that with the dissolvement of this treaty, it will only further the development of these dangerous weapons. Finally, independent Russian analysts argue that this dispute will cause the world to return to a Cold War era mentality, one of competition and suspicion. This would allow the Russians to not even pretend to adhere to the treaty anymore. 

    However, I would argue that the benefits of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the treaty outweigh the negatives. With the rise of multilateralism as well as military and economic growth in countries like China, it is important to recognize their growing influence. Therefore, they should be included in such treaties that clearly impact the world power balance – especially when the United States is so plainly concerned about the foreign development of these weapons. 

Secondly, with this fear of the emergence of another Cold War atmosphere comes the argument that the world is already in one. Although there isn’t an ongoing arms race or an overbearing bipolarity struggle; pulling out of a redundant treaty will not make a difference in diplomatic relations if it is already considered obsolete. Thereby continuing to recognize the treaty would only encourage a more equivocal relationship between the United States and Russia as they continue to attack each other with various accusations. 

Finally, why is this idea of Russia no longer pretending to adhere to the agreement so negative? If rules are going to be broken, then the entire treaty should be reevaluated with a new solution to be negotiated to fit a more modern society. The world isn’t the same place it was in 1987, so if the countries involved want to evoke change, they must first acknowledge that certain approaches to international relations simply aren’t suitable anymore. As an example, with NAFTA, the United States felt it was being treated unfairly, so through renegotiations came a new trilateral agreement that all parties are satisfied with. The same tactic can be applied to this scenario. 

Although the fears of the consequences from a withdrawal are valid, they are only heightened because of the spotlight the media places on anything the Trump administration does – especially regarding relations with Russia among the other tensions. President Obama was the first figure to officially accuse the Russians of non-compliance and issued convincing arguments for them to follow the treaty, but it yielded no results. If the Obama administration decided to withdraw in 2014 there would have been a fewer negative opinions because of the greater trust the media and academia had with President Obama’s foreign policy – it being noticeably less contentious than President Trump’s rhetoric. It was only a matter of time before the treaty proved to be superseded by the intentions of both countries. Ultimately, the pull back from the INF treaty will not have the detrimental effects the public expects it to have, but rather another ominous political headline that will become outdated by the next news cycle.