The U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty takes effect today, bringing to an end a 30-year ban on a class of weapons that both the United States and the Soviet Union recognized at the time were particularly dangerous and destabilizing. These banned, land-based shorter- and intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles posed a hair-trigger threat to NATO and to Russia by reducing decision and warning time for leaders, due to their short time of flight to their intended targets.
The end of the INF Treaty today means a key guardrail erected to move us away from the era of Cold War nuclear rivalry has come down, and the risks of nuclear blunder are rising. As a result, the United States, our allies and Russia will be less secure, and the world less safe. The costs of an accelerating nuclear arms race are unacceptably high. As the two countries with the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia have a responsibility to reduce nuclear risks.
There is a more positive path forward. Presidents Trump and Putin should direct their governments to intensify dialogue on strategic stability focused on reducing nuclear dangers and premised on the fundamental truth that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. To prevent a nuclear arms race and reduce the possibility of blundering or escalating into a nuclear conflict, the presidents should:
- Continue to implement the 2010 New START Treaty and act now to extend it through 2026. Both sides are complying with New START and benefit mutually from its limits, verification and predictability—all the more so in the absence of the INF Treaty. Without New START, there will be no limits on nuclear forces, and no verification procedures which will likely result in “worst case assumptions” by both Russia and the United States.
- Agree on core nuclear principles vital to mutual security and begin to discuss additional measures and agreements to address new kinds and classes of nuclear weapons and other capabilities that affect strategic stability. Building on the foundation of an extended New START Treaty and reinvigorated strategic stability talks, the United States and Russia should simultaneously begin negotiations on additional constraints on nuclear competition and measures to enhance strategic stability. This should include new kinds of strategic nuclear systems, non-strategic nuclear weapons, space, cyber and other non-nuclear capabilities with strategic effect.
- In consultation with our European allies, agree on mutual restraints to preclude a new arms race in the Euro-Atlantic in the wake of the INF Treaty’s demise. In particular, Russia and the United States should be reducing, not expanding, the number of nuclear weapons and nuclear-capable delivery vehicles deployed in and near Europe, whether on land, at sea, or in the air. Priority should be given to measures that would give leaders more warning and decision time, particularly in this new cyber age where the risks of miscalculation and blunder are increasing.
The end of the INF Treaty is symptomatic of the accelerating breakdown in dialogue and agreements between the United States and Russia on issues of existential importance. Both governments must take concrete steps to reverse this dangerous decline and decisively confront the problems that threaten our mutual security. Congress and our allies must support this strategic reengagement with Russia as a necessary step to avoid crises and reduce nuclear risks that are no longer “unthinkable.”