- Russian President Vladimir Putin just suspended Russia’s participation in a landmark Cold War treaty that eliminated thousands of land-based nuclear missiles from the arsenals of Russia and the US.
- Putin’s move follows a similar pull-out by the US last month.
- The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was designed to last for an “unlimited duration.”
- One reason that the US and Russia decided to back out of the nuclear deal now could be the growing nuclear threat from China, a country that’s not subject to the INF.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put pen to paper on Monday and made it official: Russia is backing out of a Cold War deal that was meant to last forever.
The Kremlin’s announcement about Russia’s exit from the deal, called the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), came about a month after a similar proclamation by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In December, Pompeo gave Russia a 60-day ultimatum to start complying with the treaty, since the US had been doubting for years that Russia was actually keeping up its end of the deal. When that window of time ended in early February, Pompeo announced that the US would move forward with its promised back-out.
“Russia has refused to take any steps to return real and verifiable compliance over these 60 days,” Pompeo said. “When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so openly threatened, we must respond.”
Putin responded by announcing that since the US was backing out, Russia would do so, too.
“The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal, we suspend it as well,” Putin said.
The INF treaty was signed at the end of the Cold War in 1987. It forced both countries to quickly destroy thousands of nukes, since it banned land-based short- and medium- range ballistic and cruise missiles.
According to the terms of the INF, the Kremlin’s decree means that six months from now, Russia will no longer be bound by any of the treaty’s nuke rules. Likewise, the US has five more months until it’s no longer subject to the restrictions.
Here’s what to know about the INF as it comes to a close, and what’s at stake in the future.
The INF was the result of years of negotiation between the US and Russia during the Cold War.
US President Richard Nixon and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev spent years drafting the plan, which aimed to eliminate all land-based missiles that travel anywhere from 300 miles to over 3,400 miles.
The two leaders finally signed the deal on December 8, 1987 in the White House.
By the summer of 1991, just two and a half years later, the two sides had destroyed some 2,700 missiles.
Source: Brookings Institution
When the treaty was signed, it was designed to stand forever, in an “unlimited duration.”
Source: US State Department
But as far back as 2014, the US questioned whether Russia was really sticking to the terms of the the deal.
Source: Brookings Institution
In particular, the US has been worried about Russia’s Novator 9M729 (SSC-8) missile with a nuclear warhead. US intelligence believes the weapon could hit most parts of Europe, violating the range restrictions of the treaty.
Source: Business Insider
Russia is also not convinced that the US has held up its end of the bargain. On February 2, Putin gave the go-ahead for Russia to start developing new missiles, but said he’ll only actually use them if the US does.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov has said before that the US is violating the pact because it has missiles in Poland and Romania.
“We are assuming the worst case scenario in our military planning.” Ryabkov said last year. “We can’t ignore the potential deployment of new American missiles on territory from where they will be a threat to Russia and its allies.”
Russia is not the only growing nuclear concern for the US, though.
China is “on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world,” a US defence intelligence assessment said in January.
Chinese media has also been showing off some weapons recently.
China isn’t bound by the INF ban on land-based missiles.
“[China] has been able to make significant progress in the area of land-based offensive missile capabilities while simultaneously building up the air and sea components,” Collin Koh, a maritime security specialist at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, recently told the South China Morning Post.
Other nuclear-arms experts have also suggested that getting rid of the agreement might give the US a needed edge in any future conflict with China.
“The US currently has the ability to strike targets in China through air strikes and sea-based missile systems,” Adam Ni, who researches Chinese foreign and security policy at the Australian National University, told the South China Morning Post. “The deployment of short or intermediate ground-based missiles to, say, Japan would add to US capabilities in the region and erode the Chinese advantage, which has been built over decades.”
Still, the crumbling of the deal is a major concern for Europeans. Once the ban on land-based missiles no longer applies, the US could theoretically set more nuclear weapons up there.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged both sides to keep talking. “It is clear to us that Russia has violated this treaty,” she told Reuters. “The important thing is to keep the window for dialogue open.”
Senator Ed Markey, who deals with nuclear issues on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The New York Times in February that the Trump administration’s decision was “a tragedy that makes the world less safe.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the original INF deal-signer also expressed his opposition to the end of the deal. He said the idea to pull the US out was “not the work of a great mind,” a clear dig at Trump.
Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the INF in October 2018.
The Trump administration recently started working on a next-generation nuclear weapon, the W76-2, that could be launched from a submarine.
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