Yesterday, Donald Trump made good on his February threat to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia because of clear violations by Moscow.
The withdrawal was made necessary by Russia’s continued and blatant violations of the treaty’s stipulations about the range of new missiles, and Moscow’s refusal to allow U.S. and NATO inspectors to examine the weapon.
At issue is the Novator 9M729, or SSC-8 cruise missile that NATO claims vastly exceeds the INF limits on intermediate missile range. The CIA claims the missile could strike any European capital, and as far back as 2014, the U.S. knew that the missile under development was a treaty-killer.
While the Bush administration declined to take Russia up on the offer, it was probably during this general timeframe that Russia decided to embark on the covert development of the new treaty-prohibited cruise missile. In the July 2014 U.S. Department of State’s Arms Control Compliance Report, the Obama administration declared:
The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.
So the issue is not a question of Russia being in violation of the Reagan era treaty. They are. Trump did well to line up NATO behind the U.S. effort to scrap the deal, despite pressure from many doves on the continent.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made the announcement yesterday.
Speaking at a press conference, Stoltenberg said: “Today the INF Treaty ceases to exist because Russia has deployed the SSC-8 missile system. The new Russian missiles are nuclear capable, mobile and hard to detect, they can reach European cities within minutes of warning time.”
He expressed regret that Russia had shown “no willingness and took no steps to comply with its international obligations” and added: “Russia bears the sole responsibility.”
His comments echo a statement made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who earlier on Friday said that “Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise.”
Stoltenberg rejected a Russian request for a moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate-range nuclear warheads in Europe, saying it is “not a credible offer” as Russia had deployed such missiles “for years.”
There is worry in some capitols — including Beijing and Berlin — that the scuttling of the nuclear deal will lead to a new arms race. But NATO has made it clear in the last few months that they will oppose any deployment of short-range missiles on the group in Europe.
Meanwhile, Trump will build.
While the US has plenty of sea- and air-launched weapons that were never covered by the treaty, the only existing ground-launched system that comes close to the banned ranges is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). But the Army’s already decided it’s not worth upgrading the 1980s-vintage ATACMS for a significantly longer range.
Instead, the Army’s developing an all-new Precision Strike Missile (PRSM) to hit targets out to 499 km — but officers acknowledge that’s an arbitrary limit imposed by the INF treaty, not the available technology. So, practically speaking, the end of INF would remove this restriction on the new PRSM, but not magically enable a radical enhancement of the aging ATACMS.
Also, most of those sea-launched cruise missiles, like the Tomahawk, could quickly be converted to use on the ground.
Did Putin misjudge the mood in America? It’s possible he never dreamed Trump would hold Russia’s feet to the fire and quit a nuclear treaty. Now Putin is left holding the nuclear bag with the U.S. poised to leapfrog the Russians in a whole new theater of competition.
Putin may wish he had been a little less stubborn.