Michael KreponRescuing the INF Treaty

Quote of the week:

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.”  — Henry James, “The Middle Years”

Yes, the hour is late and the cause is probably hopeless, but it’s still worth trying to rescue the treaty that ended the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. This treaty gave full credence to pledges by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that a nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought. I’m referring of course, to the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the apogee of the roller coaster ride that Reagan and Gorbachev took us on. Without this treaty, America’s friends and allies will feel less comfortable and vital controls over nuclear arms would be loosened.

The INF Treaty is now on life support, the clock ticking toward the Trump administration’s formal notice of withdrawal, which would take effect six months afterward. Angela Merkel persuaded Donald Trump to wait two months before bringing down the hammer. Not much additional time, but time enough to propose a face-saving way for Vladimir Putin to rectify matters if he has any interest in doing so. Or if Donald Trump and John Bolton have any interest in offering a face-saving outcome. If not, the INF Treaty will die and its demise could well presage the death of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, as well.

Putin, let us be clear, is the primary villain of the INF story. Intelligence Community Director Daniel Coats has provided a useful assessment of the violation and the U.S. Embassy in Russia has released a chronology of diplomatic efforts seeking redress. These efforts began in the Obama administration, to no avail. Nowhere in this chronology appears an attempt to offer a face-saver.

Putin never liked the INF Treaty because it banned missiles with ranges that China, India, Pakistan, Israel and hell, even North Korea, possess. Missiles that, back in the heyday of Soviet overspending on nuclear weapons in the 1970s, began to be deployed in the USSR’s Western Military Districts, perhaps in the mindless pursuit of another follow-on missile better than the last, or perhaps to leverage western Europe to be more compliant to Moscow’s preferences. The United States and NATO responded in kind with missiles that were ideally suited for knockout blows — ritual acts that Europe’s current crop of leaders seem skittish about. After much political turmoil in democratic societies, a Soviet negotiating walkout and other twists and turns, the INF Treaty eliminating all of these offensive missiles was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev.

Putin, whose instincts and strategic modernization programs mirror those of Yuri Andropov, one of Gorbachev’s predecessors,  presided over a reprise of “Euro-missile” deployments, now in the form of a ground-launched cruise missile judged by U.S. experts to be of prohibited range. This time around, as before, the same old dark motives have been ascribed to the Kremlin. It may also be true that the range and the new missile’s method of testing could be the result of screw-ups and being asleep at the switch. But no matter, damage to the treaty has been done and, once the particulars became public, could not be walked back without embarrassment. Team Trump now demands, according to Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson, “Either you rid the system, rid the launcher or change the system where it doesn’t exceed the range” in a verifiable manner.

The Kremlin, when pressed by U.S. officials to come clean and take corrective action, resorted to obfuscation. Several grievances were advanced, none excusing the violation in question. One complaint — the deployment of NATO theater missile defenses in Romania and Poland that could be converted from defensive to offensive purposes — is implausible, but cannot be completely dismissed. By addressing Russia’s stated concern in this regard the United States could provide Putin with a face-saver to take corrective actions, to NATO’s great relief — but only if Putin is so inclined.

On most balance sheets Putin wins if Trump walks away from the INF Treaty. Russia appears to be able to add battalions of the missile in question without working up a sweat, while it would take time for comparable U.S. ground-launched missiles to be readied for serial production. In addition, the United States would have great difficulty basing new INF-range missiles on European soil. Putin would enjoy this spectacle while deflecting the blame for killing the INF Treaty to Trump & Bolton for being the first to walk away.

I get why seeking a face-saving diplomatic outcome might be offensive to some. When the Soviet Union violated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by constructing a large phased array radar in the interior of the country instead of on its periphery where it belonged, the United States didn’t offer a face-saver. There were no workarounds in this instance since the radar couldn’t be allowed to function situated at this location. Eventually, Gorbachev tore it down.

In an ideal world, Washington would also stand its ground on Moscow’s INF violation and demand rectification. But this isn’t an ideal world and Putin is unlikely to accept dictation. Heck, he might not even accept a face saver. But for those of us who seek rectification and the maintenance of a valuable treaty that U.S. allies and friends want, a face-saver that helps secure these outcomes is worth exploring.

If Putin says no to a face saving outcome, then the onus for this unhappy state of affairs falls directly on his shoulders. This would be clarifying and would help the United States and NATO take sensible ameliorative steps. Alternatively, if Putin agrees to negotiate a satisfactory outcome, this would presumably take time, during which there would need to be a stand-down of missile deployments while the INF Treaty remains in effect.

One way to extend the INF Treaty while leveraging a successful negotiation over treaty noncompliant missiles would be to pursue a third theater missile defense site in Eastern Europe while declaring that it would not be deployed if Russia returns to treaty compliance.

A second way to negotiate rectification of this violation would be to offer observable clarifications that existing theater missile defense deployments are truly defensive and would not be converted to offensive use. The second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, which never entered into force, introduced the concept of “functionally-related observable differences,” or FRODs. This concept was then applied to bombers; perhaps technical experts could explore ways to see if FRODs could also be applied to theater missile defenses. The concept here is to have visible ways to reassure a treaty partner that something permissible would not be used in impermissible ways. FRODs at missile defense sites, like rectifying violations of the INF Treaty, would presumably need to be backed up by on-site inspections.

A third way to proceed is to demand Russian compliance without offering face-saving steps, to withdraw from the INF Treaty, to pursue new land-based, nuclear-armed missiles that NATO countries would not wish to have on their soil and sea-based, nuclear-armed cruise missiles that the U.S. Navy would not want on surface ships and submarines. Trump, his Svengali, John Bolton, and deterrence “strengtheners” or Capitol Hill have chosen Option C. Dictation is easier than diplomacy, but it doesn’t have nearly as good a track record.

The INF Treaty hangs by a thread. Putin, Trump and Bolton don’t like it. If face-saving and adept diplomacy aren’t given a try at this eleventh hour, the INF Treaty will become another relic of the Cold War even though it continues to have great utility. Deterrence “strengtheners” in both countries would then feel free to go about their business, unfettered by formal restraints. Calling for the pursuit of a face-saver could still be useful, however. Doing so would serve as a warning to deterrence “strengtheners” that the more they succeed at treaty trashing, the more informal, budget-based obstacles would be placed in their way.

If the White House proceeds to kill INF and then New START, Putin will play the role of the victim and the Trump/Bolton duo would become the western world’s axis of evil. Putin is threatening a renewed nuclear arms race with a defense budget that is one tenth that of the United States. If he wishes to go down this route, he will lose. If he continues to deploy new Euro missiles, those who seek informal restraints would be weakened and U.S. budget constraints would in all likelihood be loosened. Putin is smart enough to know that parallel informal restraints are a safer bet. Either way, unwise moves by the executive branch place a premium on sensible steps by the U.S. Congress.


  1. M B (History)

    Oh where, oh where has the rationality gone ? Oh where oh where can it be ?
    Did Trump hide it when he took office ? And hide it where we can’t see ?
    Did Putin kill another dissident voice, and decide to violate the Treaty ?
    And has Bolton whispered into Trump’s ear to teach him how to talk tough ?
    So here we are the rest of us, having to live under the Sword of Damocles…

  2. jeannick guerin (History)

    Well the whole issue is the nature of a treaty
    a mutual agreement taking both sides concern into account within a framework of seeking acceptable solution.
    that’s gone …..long gone , there is no treaty anymore only procedures and media releases

    there is no secret in Russia deep unhappiness with the US politico military activities in Europe .
    they had to watch the missile shield being set up and Nato expansion bring military weapon waving to their very borders

    when the alleged violations were raised , Russia raised a few of their own only to be told that was not up to discussion only their malfeasance was an issue .
    well , OK , no talking is the new style …..let’s not talk then

    The US is an air and sea power , there are no limitation on any missiles there
    as a power projection the INF has no relevance to them
    ( in fact it’s pretty hard to think of any positive on scrapping the treaty beside improving Raytheon bottom line
    and urinating from on high on those pesky Europeans

    Russia is a land power , the INF was a grievous impost on their power projection at a time of increasing crisis
    since the stupid yanks take the bad guy role , why stop them doing us good .

    It is difficult to assess how the new start could survive without the INF ,
    how will the new launchers be counted , what is a strategic weapon anyway
    can the missile shield be kept out of the attack / defense equation

    Treaties are the public display of some form of regulated relationship ,
    just now there is no ground for any such restraint and the US has form on ditching treaties whenever it please them

    The sad fact was that the INF was an absolute godsend to Europe ,
    they demonstrated their fecklessness and impotence by meekly following the Bolton line
    As czar Donald could say ” F..ck them suckers “

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