Skip to content

Landmark U.S.-Russia arms treaty expires

The United States and Russia let the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty lapse on Friday, ending a key plank of Cold War-era nuclear arms control.

WASHINGTON (AN) — The United States and Russia let the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty lapse on Friday, ending a key plank of Cold War-era nuclear arms control and prompting fears of a new global arms race amid rising geopolitical tensions.

Trading blame, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to set aside their differences over the INF Treaty, or to convene expert-level negotiations to try to resolve the compliance issues that Trump cited in his decision to withdraw.

With the treaty's expiration, experts said, the world will become a more dangerous place and the job of advocating for nuclear arms control will be far more difficult. The INF Treaty that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed three decades ago led to the destruction of almost 2,700 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles and their launchers.

"In the current deteriorating international security environment, previously-agreed arms control and disarmament agreements are increasingly under threat," said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who expressed his "deep regret" at the ending of treaty.

"Since its entry-into-force on June 1, 1988, the INF Treaty contributed tangibly to the maintenance of peace and stability internationally and especially in Europe," Guterres said. "It played an important role in reducing risk, building confidence and helping to bring the Cold War to an end."

The treaty banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Such weapons had long stirred fears of a strike caused by miscalculation or error, because at those distances the missiles could hit their targets within 10 minutes. For Europe, the removal of those weapons, accompanied by agreements on verification and inspections, brought huge relief.

Now, the United States plans to hold a conventional — not nuclear — weapons test of a new ground-launched intermediate-range missile that the INF Treaty would have prohibited.

“Some 74 years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan, the risk of nuclear war is higher today than many people realize — and it is increasing," said David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program.

Wright said current U.S. policy permits the United States to use nuclear weapons first against a nuclear-armed opponent during a non-nuclear conflict — thereby starting a nuclear war — and the president alone has the authority to order a nuclear launch.

The United States keeps hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles on a ‘hair-trigger alert,’ he noted, making them available to be launched in a matter of minutes in response to a warning of an incoming nuclear attack.

"That creates a risk that the United States would launch a nuclear attack in response to a false warning, starting a nuclear war by mistake. This risk is not theoretical," he said. "A number of human and technical errors have occurred in the past, prompting U.S. military officials to initiate steps to launch a counterattack."

U.S.-Russia recriminations

Over the past decade, U.S. officials have accused Russia of developing nuclear-capable cruise missiles to threaten or provoke the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Russia, in response, has claimed the United States violated the pact by researching new American missile defenses that could be deployed if the Russians did not comply.

"We have not seen any signs of a breakthrough," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in July. "We must prepare for a world without INF, which will be less stable." Stoltenberg, who had said that Russia could still salvage the treaty by destroying its new SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile, held a news conference in Brussels on Friday to discuss the treaty's expiration.

"We regret that Russia showed no willingness and took no steps to comply with its international obligations," Stoltenberg told reporters. All of the NATO allies support the U.S. decision to withdraw, he said, because "no international agreement is effective if it is only respected by one side. Russia bears the sole responsibility for the demise of the treaty."

Russia's foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, however, said Russia "did everything we could" to save the INF Treaty.

"We offered Washington a package of concrete and practical measures, which could ease the sides’ concerns based on mutual transparency," she told reporters in July. "But all our initiatives including the idea of reciprocity were rejected outright without a serious analysis.

In November, arms control experts called on Trump to keep the United States in the INF Treaty. They also urged the United States and Russia to renew a decade-long, more comprehensive nuclear pact known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, that took effect in 2011.

It is due to expire in 2021, and without it and the INF Treaty, the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals would have no legally binding limits for the first time in almost a half-century.

One of the experts’ letters to Trump — signed by a bipartisan group of 14 current and former U.S. political and military leaders — said the United States must “sustain meaningful, verifiable limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals in order to provide more predictability, transparency and stability in our nuclear relationship with Russia."

But the Trump administration's position is that holding talks to extend New START cannot occur until China, with its growing arsenal of nuclear warheads, agrees to be included. “We’ll see what happens,” Trump said on Thursday. “I will say, Russia would like to do something on a nuclear treaty, and that’s okay with me. They’d like to do something, and so would I.”

A pillar of European security

Last year, when Trump announced the planned withdrawal, Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the treaty was "vitally important for Europe’s security." He said Russia would have to answer claims it violated the agreement, but Trump's decision was nonetheless regrettable.

"It poses difficult questions for us and for Europe. For 30 years, the INF Treaty, which prohibits Russia and the United States from possessing and testing ground-launch intermediate range missiles, has been an important pillar of our European security architecture," said Maas.

This week, Maas said Europe will be less secure without the INF Treaty.

“We regret the fact that Russia has not done what was necessary to save the INF treaty. Now, we call all the more on Russia and the U.S. to preserve the New START treaty as a cornerstone of worldwide arms control,” said Maas. “Nuclear powers such as China must also face up to their responsibility on arms control — they have more weight in the world than at the time of the Cold War.”

The lapse of the INF Treaty undercuts both U.S. and Russian security, said Nikolai Sokov, a Vienna-based expert in U.S. and Russian nonproliferation and senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, or CNS.

"Almost 40 years ago, an unrestricted and unregulated arms race in Europe was reversed by the INF Treaty," he wrote in April. "Today, the prospects of saving that treaty or starting negotiations on a new one are dim, at best, but there is still a chance to avoid or at least postpone the arms race."