As the United States and Russia leave the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, both states are planning for a future of unrestrained arms production. Moscow and Washington tell different stories when it comes to identifying the failure of the long-standing nuclear pact, but they’re on the same page in regards to how its breakdown will affect the nuclear landscape. In short, we might be witnessing the beginnings of a second Cold War. On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to respond to the development of American short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles with nuclear developments of his own.
In 1987, the INF was signed between U.S. President Ronald and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the sun began to set on the Soviet Union. For the nearly four decades following World War II, both superpowers fought for dominance in several aspects of geopolitical power during the Cold War. From the space race to nuclear build-ups and the spread of communism, Washington and Moscow competed any way they could. Ultimately, this led to the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, two vastly different events provoked by tense foreign policy which called for combatting Soviet influence in all corners of the world.
In the 1980s, however, relations began to simmer down as the Soviet Union began to collapse economically. While it had enjoyed an oil boon in the 1970s as OPEC nations cut production, the decade that followed was the opposite – low oil prices coupled with too much supply created a death grip around the neck of the Soviet Union. Within 10 years, it would no longer exist, but not before Gorbachev negotiated a nuclear deal with the U.S. Perhaps the greatest Soviet threat to America was its nuclear stockpile which was the largest in the world.
After seven years of negotiating, the INF was signed and mandated for both the destruction of several thousand missiles aimed at Europe in addition to a ban on land-based rockets capable of striking targets between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Hailed as a landmark agreement, the INF effectively put an end to the Cold War, even if the fall of the Berlin Wall two years later is considered the actual conclusion. While the Berlin Wall was highly symbolic and the reunification of Berlin was critical to the demise of the Soviet Union, it was the INF that truly ended the fears that fueled the nonstop aggression between the two superpowers.
Tearing the Treaty
By most metrics, the INF could be considered a success. While the relations between Moscow and Washington have never been what one might call ‘close,’ there haven’t been events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis since the INF was signed. Many might argue that it was not only the treaty but also the collapse of the Soviet Union which afforded the world a relief from hostilities, and that point certainly has merit. Russia and its former territories have been in a rebuilding mode for the past few decades, mostly in terms of their economies. Under Putin’s leadership, which has comprised a bulk of Russia’s post-Soviet years, Russia has pushed its way to the superpower stage once more. He has modernized the Russian military which was widely-considered inferior to that of America when comparing technology and engineering.
Putin has also pushed his state to compete globally on the same level as China and the U.S. when it comes to spreading influence. While its days of converting neighboring states to communism may be over, Moscow now gains influence primarily through trade and military partnerships, predominantly in the Middle East and North Africa. It would not be inconceivable that Putin could also desire to expand his nuclear arsenal.
To counter the growing influence of Russia, and perhaps to remove barriers on American nuclear weapons development, Trump accused Putin of violating the INF agreement. As a response, Trump removed the U.S. from the treaty, effective August 2.
“…After that point in time, we will continue to pursue what is in our best interest,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Asper. “Now that we have withdrawn, the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions.”
For Trump and his administration, the “best interest” often translates to ensuring the “best deals” and making sure other states are not taking advantage of the U.S. Generally, this results in Trump removing America from deals negotiated by his predecessors, mostly former President Barack Obama. This is what happened with the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and trade agreements with numerous nations, most prominently China. Removing the U.S. from deals that he did not arrange is Trump’s modus operandi.
Find a New Deal
Russian and American negotiators are met in Geneva last month to find a solution to the arms control problem. While Putin warned that he would initiate the development of new nuclear warheads, he also expressed that he does not desire it to come to that.
“In order to avoid chaos with no rules, restrictions or laws, we need to once more weigh up all the dangerous consequences and launch a serious and meaningful dialogue free from any ambiguity,” Putin said.
For Trump, however, that may not be enough. A deal on his terms would bring China onboard to the agreement, something that Beijing is vehemently opposed to. From Trump’s point of view, the INF was outdated and meaningless because it did not include China, a rising global superpower. China currently has a substantially smaller nuclear arsenal than either Russia or the U.S., but could be well on its way to building that out, according to U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reports.
China will under no circumstances even entertain the thought of joining an INF-like agreement, however.
“As to the trilateral negotiations on arms control, China’s position is clear-cut,” said Lu Kang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The premise and basis for trilateral arms control negotiations do not exist at all, and China will never participate in them.”
In the absence of China’s involvement, Trump may not agree to another nuclear deal with Russia. While it would bear his name instead of Reagan’s, which would surely be a highlight for him, his impossible requirement to bring Beijing into the fold will require Moscow to convince the American delegation that an amicable deal is in its best interests. With any luck, the talks in Geneva this week will afford them that opportunity.