A fierce debate is brewing inside the Trump administration over whether to withdraw from another international treaty — this one a cornerstone disarmament pact with Russia banning an entire class of nuclear missiles.
The Russian military in February was accused of yet again of violating the 1987 Intermediate Range Forces Treaty, which eliminated U.S. and Soviet missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, by deploying a battalion of banned weapons on Europe’s periphery. The Obama administration first reported in 2014 Russia had tested the banned missile.
Leading Republican hawks are pushing legislation to compel Trump to take steps to develop new missiles in response — the first steps to jettisoning what is known as the INF treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mihkail Gorbachev. Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who chairs a key oversight panel on nuclear weapons, told POLITICO he thinks it is “irresponsible for us to continue to adhere to a treaty when the only other participant has long moved on from it.”
But there are serious questions inside the Pentagon, State Department and the White House National Security Council — and loud warnings from the architects of the pact — about the consequences of such a move, which some say could spark a full-blown arms race.
Spokespeople for the Defense and State Departments told POLITICO the INF Treaty remains "in the national security interest of the United States" and called on Russia to return to full compliance. The Pentagon, in a previously unpublished report to Congress last year, explicitly cautions against pulling out of the treaty, saying Russia’s compliance "remains the preferable outcome, which argues against unilateral U.S. withdrawal from or abrogation of the INF Treaty at this time."
But as the Trump administration undertakes a review of the entire American nuclear posture, one focus is whether the U.S. should remain in the treaty. “There’s a growing concrete threat that’s being presented to us, to our forces, to our allies and friends … by this new system,” Christopher Ford, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation on the National Security Council, recently told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to the prohibited Russian missiles. “We need to do more to ensure … that Russia doesn’t obtain a military advantage from its violation.”
However, many leading arms control advocates from both parties say that responding in kind could have even more dire consequences.
“It can only lead to greater danger,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry, who is a member of the Pentagon’s high-level Defense Policy Board, told POLITICO, noting that the type of weapon the treaty outlawed was considered particularly destabilizing.
“The chance of blundering into a nuclear conflict is greater [with such missiles] than with long- range missiles because they are not based on our shores,” said Perry, who now runs an educational campaign on nuclear dangers in partnership with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
More broadly, Perry said a U.S. move to pull out of the pact — even if it was not followed by a decision to match the Russian weapons — “means we are giving up on treaties.”
It is a worry shared by veterans of Republican administrations as well.
“We are at an inflection point,” said Ambassador Richard Burt, who served as the lead arms control negotiator during the administration of President George H.W. Bush and oversaw the deployment of the now-retired Pershing missile, the last intermediate-range nuclear launch system in the American arsenal, when he worked for Reagan. “The whole structure of the arms control regime is in danger of falling apart and we are going to find ourselves in a nuclear arms race. Before pulling out of the INF Treaty we need to take a deep breath.”
The INF Treaty stands as a landmark in arms control not just because of the reductions it achieved — removing thousands of nuclear weapons from the European continent — but also because it for the first time eliminated a whole category of nuclear weapons.
“To some the zero option was impossibly visionary and unrealistic; to others merely a propaganda ploy,” Reagan said at the treaty’s signing. “Well, with patience, determination, and commitment, we’ve made this impossible vision a reality.”
Russia has denied violating the treaty. In February, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia “remains committed to its international obligations, including under the INF Treaty.”
But senior U.S. military and intelligence officials strongly disagree. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that Russia likely developed the banned cruise missile in part because the INF Treaty does not prohibit U.S. allies from possessing such weapons.
“Moscow probably believes that the new [ground-launched cruise missile] provides sufficient military advantages that make it worth risking the political repercussions of violating the INF Treaty,” Coats said.
Now a growing number of Republican lawmakers and national security specialists are calling for the U.S. to deploy intermediate-range missiles in response — and tear up the treaty.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced a bill this year that would declare Russia in material breach of the treaty — the first step to withdrawing.
“Declaring Russia in material breach of the treaty is an option the President should absolutely consider,” a spokesperson for Cotton told POLITICO. “In the meantime, the United States needs to begin researching and developing similar systems.”
The bill would also authorize transferring intermediate-range systems to allied countries, establish a new program for ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges, and provide $500 million to fund countervailing-strike options.
Those provisions are carefully designed to stay within the limits of the treaty but send a strong signal to Russia that it should come back into compliance, according to Tom Karako, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Defense Project.
“Rules are being broken,” Karako said. “It’s way too late to still be twiddling our thumbs."
"Withdrawing sends a strong signal to the Russian Federation that there will be consequences for violating international agreements," added Michaela Dodge, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. "I think that signal is very important."
House Armed Services Strategic Forces Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) has introduced a companion measure — but his would fund the development of new missiles by slashing money for nonproliferation programs.
But while many others agree that the Russia violations are deeply troubling and requires more forceful action, they blasted calls for the U.S. to withdraw from the treaty and develop its own banned missiles, concerned could spark a new arms race in Europe.
“These missiles are highly destabilizing, they’re capable of reaching Moscow within 15 minutes,” Alexandra Bell, a former State Department official who is senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said. “Withdrawing from the INF Treaty would be a terrible mistake.”
Instead, the U.S. should first pursue all possible diplomatic measures to bring the Russians back into compliance, beginning with providing the Russians with evidence of the violation, opponents of jettisoning the treaty say.
Tom Countryman, who stepped down in January as assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation predicts such a move would send a dangerous signal, especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States will exit the Paris climate deal — and his reluctance to voice support for NATO’s principle of collective security.
“It would undermine our perception in the world that the U.S. honors its obligations,” he said. “We’re already under suspicion because of NATO and the climate agreement.”
Furthermore, withdrawing from the treaty could give Russia cover for deploying even more missiles in violation of the treaty. It also could spark a backlash from European allies within reach of the banned weapons, argues Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a leading disarmament group.
“It would be insane for the United States to withdraw from a treaty that eliminated thousands of nuclear weapons that threatened us and our allies,” Cirincione said. “If you think relations between the Europeans and the U.S. are bad now, just start deploying nuclear weapons and see what happens.”
And even with the new missile deployed by Russia, the U.S. does not have a compelling security reason to redeploy its own version, stressed Burt, who is now is co-chair of the Nuclear Crisis Group at the non-artisan advocacy group Global Zero, told POLITICO.
“Our requirement for an intermediate-range capability is much less than theirs,” he said, pointing out that Russia “is stuck in the middle of Eurasia with nuclear powers surrounding them” — in Europe, China and the Indian subcontinent. “We are not worried about the Canadians or the Brazilians.”
Perry says the risk is bigger than just one class of atomic arms. On the line may be the entire nuclear arms control regime, including the 2012 New START Treaty that mandates deep cuts in both side’s deployed nuclear missiles
“It is hard to see a how we could negotiate a follow on to the New START Treaty if we just pulled out of the INF treaty,” he said. “It is pretty hard to ignore those [Russian] violations but I’d find a way not to pull out.”