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The U.S. Will Withdraw From the INF Treaty. Experts Say This Could Start a Nuclear Arms Race.

The Trump administration argues that Russia deserves the blame for the treaty's collapse, although withdrawal is not likely to restore the country's compliance.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, in the Oval Office at the White House on January 31st, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump's move to end a major nuclear arms treaty with Russia comes the day before the Department of State's deadline for Russian compliance.

On Friday, President Donald Trump followed through on his threat to end a major nuclear arms treaty with Russia, a move that experts warn could escalate an arms race of a kind not seen since the Cold War. On Saturday, when the Department of State's deadline for Russian compliance expires, the United States can begin testing or deploying its weapons.

Considered the Cold War's most dramatic nuclear arms reduction treaty, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty banned ground-launched missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles. The agreement led to the destruction of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet missiles within three years, mandated on-site inspections, and paved the way for further arms control negotiation, according to an assessment from the Brookings Institute.

But, starting with the Obama administration and continuing under Trump, the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty. In February of 2019, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization admitted Russia had indeed developed a missile system that violates the INF's terms and "poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security," calling on Moscow to comply. Going a more hawkish route, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a 60-day deadline for compliance—and that deadline will arrive on Saturday. Within six months, officials expect a full withdrawal from the treaty, according to the New York Times.

The Trump administration argues that Russia deserves the blame for the treaty's collapse, although withdrawal is not likely to restore the country's compliance. "Russia has jeopardized the United States' security interests, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it," Pompeo told reporters at the Department of State.

The president has shown a general distaste for diplomacy in the past, such as in his choice to abandon the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, as Pacific Standard reported. This next move raises serious questions about national security: Some speculate that the administration hopes to use the withdrawal to shore up prohibitions against China's growing nuclear arsenal, since deploying intermediate-range forces could force Beijing to negotiate.

Below, experts and advocates respond to the Trump administration's decision.

Pranay Vaddi, Fellow, Nuclear Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The administration's INF Treaty withdrawal was perhaps inevitable, and the impact it has on widening U.S.–Russian strategic competition may be severe. But in the context of the president's inability to support the U.S. Article 5 commitment to defend NATO allies in the event of an attack, the real victim is our transatlantic alliance. The administration called out China as a key reason to withdraw, abandoning Europe to Russia and the SSC-8 threat [a Russian cruise missile, test-launched in violation of the INF]. The administration has advanced no plan to make Europe safer now, no strategy to address the fielded missile, and no agenda for mitigating a new costly arms competition with Russia. The administration's INF Treaty withdrawal is yet another brick taken from security-enhancing, U.S.-built alliance structures, which have secured relative peace, advanced liberalism, and benefited the U.S. way of life for decades.

Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director, the International Campaign on Nuclear Weapons

Trump has fired the starting pistol on Cold War II. Only this one could be bigger, more dangerous, and the world may not be so lucky this time around. European leaders and all NATO allies must make it clear that withdrawing from the INF treaty is a threat to European security. European governments must be working toward removing all nuclear weapons from European soil by joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Andrew Reddie, Ph.D. Candidate and Deputy Director, Nuclear Policy Working Group, University of California–Berkeley

It is important to note that the fundamentals of nuclear deterrence remain unchanged by developments surrounding the INF Treaty. As a country reneges on its agreements, some have argued that it makes future agreements—with both adversaries and allies—more difficult to reach. Given their vulnerability to Russian intermediate-range forces, European allies would have likely preferred a mechanism that brought Russia back into compliance within the INF Treaty architecture rather than the abandonment of the framework altogether.

Rick Wayman, Deputy Director, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

The INF Treaty set a strong precedent for arms control negotiations. It was the first treaty to ban an entire class of nuclear weapons. To willingly turn our backs on this vital treaty is a self-own that not only makes the Trump administration look incompetent and foolish, but also puts our European allies and all of us at greater risk of nuclear catastrophe. There are some dangerous individuals feeding President Trump terrible advice on nuclear arms treaties. Together with the recent U.S. violation of the JCPOA [Iran deal], the U.S. INF Treaty withdrawal signals that the trend will continue and New START [nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia] could very well be next. A new nuclear arms race is now in full effect. This is not the direction the world should be heading in 2019, and indeed it is not the direction that the majority of the world is going.

Steven Pifer, William Perry Fellow, the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University

On its current course, the INF Treaty will come to a formal end in six months' time when the United States withdraws. But let's be clear: The primary cause of the treaty's demise is Russia's decision to violate the agreement by developing and deploying a prohibited ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile, the 9M729.

The United States first publicly disclosed the Russian violation in July of 2014. Unfortunately, European leaders—whose countries' security was most directly threatened by this—did not make the violation an issue with the Kremlin until only recently, and the Trump administration had no serious politico-military strategy to try to persuade Moscow to come back into compliance. With the treaty's end, Russia will be free to openly deploy the 9M729 and perhaps other kinds of intermediate-range missiles, and the situation in Europe will become less stable and less secure.

*Update—February 1st, 2019: This post has been updated to include a statement from Steven Pifer.