President Donald Trump has sufficient time to decide, with President Vladimir Putin, to set aside the lapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that will otherwise occur on August 2.
If they do, the two sides can meet at the expert level to resolve the compliance issues that precipitated the decision to withdraw. If the treaty is allowed to lapse, efforts to restore effective arms control measures will become even more difficult — and the world will grow more dangerous.
The lapse of the INF Treaty would not strengthen U.S. security, nor that of the Russian Federation. Both are more secure without deploying nuclear and conventionally armed ground-based missiles that can hit targets from 500 to 5,500 kilometers away. Weapons of this range are particularly dangerous because their short flight times would require quicker reactions, which raise the chance of miscalculation.
Both countries have cited concerns about weapons that are thought not to be in compliance, and these concerns need to be resolved. But removing the ban on such missiles would remove the best protection of NATO countries that sit within several thousand kilometers of Russian territory. Without limitations, nuclear missiles aimed at European capitals could again proliferate. The United States would then feel added pressure to expand its own missile arsenals in western Europe, raising the risks across the board.
A chorus of support for INF grew louder on July 29, when a group of prominent global leaders, The Elders, released a statement voicing their deep concern about its imminent lapse. Founded by Nelson Mandela, the group argues the treaty’s loss will undermine the entire structure of international agreements that constrain the deadliest weapons of mass destruction.
Two weeks ago, U.S. and Russian Federation officials met in Geneva at the level of the Deputy Secretary of State for a review of security issues, including nuclear arms control. State Department officials said the topics included U.S. concerns with Russian compliance with the INF and other nuclear agreements. There is a critical need for follow-up negotiations to address such problems. These would also allow the United States to address problems with compliance with the INF Treaty that the Russian Federation has voiced about the U.S. Aegis Ashore anti-ballistic missile system in Europe, which Russia claims may be able to launch prohibited missiles.
Maintaining the INF Treaty would be a first step in a broader effort, because the even more critical New START treaty will lapse in early 2021 without mutual presidential decisions to extend it up to five years. New START limits the total number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems between the two countries. Extension would be sensible, both to maintain the cap on Russian strategic nuclear weapons, and the intrusive verification provisions that provide confidence that that cap is being respected. Since its inception New START has led to the U.S. and Russia sharing more than 18,000 notifications on weapons, greatly lowering the risk of misunderstanding leading to escalation.
Keeping the INF and New START treaties in place would be a solid basis from which to pursue the broader arms-control initiative called for by President Trump: to involve China in negotiations on its nuclear weapons. Beyond China, other states possessing nuclear weapons can also be involved, leading to a global limit on stockpiles. This is a laudable goal and would greatly improve the safety and security of the entire world. But this is by no means an either-or situation, we would be best served by maintaining the benefits of existing treaties while pursuing new ones.
Pursuing this joint course of action would substantially reduce the role of nuclear weapons in maintaining international security. It would also greatly improve prospects for a successful review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty next May by demonstrating U.S. action in fulfilling its obligation to make progress toward complete nuclear disarmament. The INF Treaty, New START, and the NPT are the foundation of global stability. The United States, with Russia, should make every effort to see that the foundation is not weakened, but maintained and strengthened.