Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is serious and requires a response, but the U.S. decision to withdraw from INF is a serious mistake. If the United States gives formal notice and withdraws from the Treaty in six months, a cascade of negative consequences for the United States, Europe and the world could be triggered:
- Militarily, it will open the door to unfettered deployment of Russian INF-range systems, which are unlikely to be matched by the United States and its allies, and accelerate a new and dangerous nuclear arms race.
- Diplomatically, it will divide NATO, squandering one of our greatest security assets and strengths.
- Strategically, it will undermine America’s ability to rally the world to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The decision has a justifiable legal basis because of Russia’s violations, but that does not make it wise. The strategic rationale for the Treaty is as sound today as it was when it was signed in 1987. Withdrawing from INF is not required for U.S. or European security. Nor is it required to deal with the threat of China’s INF-range systems. The United States has a robust nuclear deterrent and conventional forces—including intermediate-range air- and sea-launched missiles—to ensure Russia gains no military advantage from its violation and to deter nuclear use or defeat any potential adversary. Withdrawal from the Treaty will only take the pressure off of Moscow to return to compliance, set the United States up to take the blame for INF’s demise, and terminate all paths to restore the Treaty. It would be one more step toward a very dangerous confrontation that could lead—including by accident, mistake, or terrible miscalculation—to what would be the final failure: the use of a nuclear weapon for the first time in over 70 years.
To turn this potential mistake into an opportunity, Presidents Trump and Putin should follow through on their commitment at Helsinki last summer to begin a new dialogue on strategic stability focused on nuclear dangers. Washington appears to be slow in following up, while Moscow continues to signal its willingness to proceed. The two presidents should now direct their two governments to accelerate this process in areas of existential common interest—in particular reducing the risk of nuclear use—focused on:
- Developing and agreeing on core nuclear principles and the scope for strategic stability talks. Central to re-establishing strategic stability is a mutually agreed set of core nuclear principles that can serve as guide posts relating to the vital interests of the United States, its European allies and Russia. These core principles would be tied to reducing any political rationale or military incentives for nuclear first use. Broadening the aperture of engagement to include forward-deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons in and near Europe, missile defense, “prompt-strike” forces, cyber and space is also essential for reducing nuclear risks.
- Preventing unmanaged competition in the area of nuclear forces. Both sides should make a more serious effort to address respective claims of non-compliance and offer transparency and verification mechanisms to resolve the current problems with INF. They should also continue to implement the 2010 New START Treaty and agree to extend it through 2026. Both sides are now complying with New START and benefit mutually from its limits, verification and the predictability—all the more so while the viability of INF is in question. Losing either one of these agreements would be highly detrimental; without both, there will be no arms control constraints on nuclear forces, which will exacerbate today’s already high risks. There will also be no agreed verification procedures which will likely result in “worst case assumptions” by both Russia and the United States.
Today our security is threatened by colliding national interests, a breakdown in arms control, new military technologies and cyber risks to early warning and command and control systems—all increasingly outside any structure, process or strategy for managing and reducing risks, and increasingly divorced from a coherent U.S. policy toward Russia.
The United States and Russia must resume dialogue and take concrete steps to decisively confront the problems that threaten our security—or risk a catastrophic conflict. Given the current state of West-Russia relations, strategic engagement is essential, and steps to improve stability cannot be based on trust. They must be verified. Arms control structures have a continuing and vital role to play going forward, and verification tools should be used to bolster them when they are at risk.