Without a Missile Treaty, Cold War Prepare for New Arms Race

A decades-old nuclear weapons treaty has now been thrown out by both the U.S. and Russia. After each side declared the other had violated the Cold War era pact, they decided to no longer uphold it. President Trump moved first back in February, proclaiming that Washington would abandon the agreement if Russia did not end its weapons program which the U.S. considered a violation of the deal.

President Putin didn’t budge, instead preemptively leaving the deal rather than bow to international nuclear inspectors. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed in 1987 between U.S. President Reagan and Soviet President Gorbachev. The INF banned not only the possession of short and intermediate-range rockets, but also their development and testing.

It was a landmark agreement that helped warm the relations between the two juggernauts following decades of nuclear build-up. Each side no longer had access to land-based missiles capable of striking with the 500 to 5,500 kilometer range. With the INF no longer respected by either side, both nations are free to ramp up the development of their weapons and make up lost ground. According to both the Trump and previous Obama administrations, Russia had already broken the agreement in part by under-reporting the range of some of its truck-fired missiles.

Putin’s government did not respond to those allegations, nor to the reports that it has been testing the 9M729 rocket. In its rebuttal, the Kremlin pointed out that the U.S. routinely flies armed drones within the ranges outlawed by the INF, though this technology was not present when the deal was created.  The U.S. also maintains missile defense locations across Europe, most of which are capable of launching nuclear missiles in the short and intermediate ranges, a sore point with the Kremlin.

Although both sides have given formal notices of their intentions to no longer honor the INF, it is not immediately dead. The agreement calls for a six-month waiting period during which time bilateral talks could produce a return to the treaty. Last week, top military officers from both the U.S. and Russia met in Vienna to discuss “strategic stability” on a number of issues, including Syria and the INF.

While few details from that meeting are known, it was reported that the New START treaty was also a discussion topic. The New START treaty was signed in 2010 and limits the number of nuclear warheads each country is permitted to deploy. Critically, this deal will expire in 2021 unless an option is invoked to extend it for an additional five years.

So far, there’s been no sign from either side about whether or not the New START agreement will be renewed. Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense, argued that renewing the treaty should be a a top goal for the Trump administration. Ultimately, the next missile treaty between the two countries, whether that is a renewed INF or something new entirely, should focus on a class of weapons known as cruise missiles. These are armed the same as standard explosives, but the only way to verify if they are nuclear or not is to inspect them before launch.

Because of the uncertainty behind cruise missiles, their use risks accidentally spurring a nuclear retaliation even if they are not equipped with nuclear warheads. If fired, a target could easily consider the worst-case scenario and assume they are indeed nuclear.

The downfall of the INF treaty has started to bring other countries into the nuclear arms race, starting with Ukraine. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pavlo Klimkin released a statement that proclaimed the country’s right to develop intermediate-range missiles for defense against Russia.

“The potential military pressure of the Russian Federation on European members of NATO due to the withdrawal from the Treaty, aimed at establishing total control by Moscow over the broader region from Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea, poses a serious threat to the whole European continent,” Klimkin said.

Ukraine is a prime target for Russian aggression since President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power in 2013 and Crimea was annexed by Russia. A continued build-up of Russian military along the border certainly gives concern to the former Soviet nation.

Finally, there is concern about other nuclear states who were not a party to the INF, such as China. Both Russia and U.S. are likely threatened by its growing stockpile of weapons and wish to start bolstering their own supplies.

If Russia and the U.S. are unable to negotiate a return of the INF, the world will witness another arms race that will likely rival that of the Cold War. The best scenario for both parties would be to continue negotiations and possibly even bring more countries into the treaty.