On 20 October, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The move constitutes a response to violation of the INF treaty by Russia and the wide-ranging development of missiles prohibited under the accord by China, which is not a part not a party to it. At the same time, Trump suggested he is open to working out a new agreement with both countries.
The treaty was signed in 1987 by the U.S. and USSR. It prohibits the possession, flight testing, and production of ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) and ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500km. The treaty led to the elimination of a whole category of armaments regarded as destabilising because of their capability for short-notice nuclear attacks in Europe. In 2014, the U.S. publicly accused Russia of flight testing a prohibited GLCM (later identified as 9M729), and in 2017 informed that the missile was being deployed. The 9M729 missile is most likely capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional warheads. It might substantially increase Russia’s capabilities for precision strikes against NATO forces and infrastructure within the INF range, which officially include exclusively air- and sea-launched missiles.
The Trump administration had signalled the possibility of withdrawal from the INF treaty in the longer term but had focused on attempts to bring Russia back into compliance. In line with the integrated strategy introduced in December 2017, the U.S. continued to seek a diplomatic resolution in line with actions by the previous administration. But under Trump, the U.S. imposed sanctions on companies developing the 9M729 and began a review of military responses. As required by Congress, it launched research and development (R&D) on a conventional GLCM with the prohibited range. R&D is not prohibited by the treaty unless it includes the possession, production or flight testing of the banned systems. Another bargaining chip was to come from the development of a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile, as recommended by the report from February 2018.
It is possible that Trump’s remarks are meant to boost the pressure on Russia with regard to its non-compliance with the INF treaty. But it seems more likely that they follow from the growing influence of . Russia’s violation of the INF treaty strengthened Bolton’s long-standing arguments that the treaty greatly constrains U.S. space for action, since the prohibited capabilities are in the possession of American adversaries not under the treaty. This point of view is shared by some U.S. military commanders as well, especially with regard to China. Some experts, however, argue that China’s capabilities in Asia can be countered with INF treaty-compliant sea- and air-launched missiles. There has also been an ongoing debate on how to respond to Russia’s violation. Congress has been seeking a more articulate reaction from the administration, but it will be divided on Trump’s decision to leave the treaty.
It will present the American decision as proof of the inaccuracy of allegations regarding the 9M729 missile and confirmation of the validity of its own accusations that the U.S. has violated the treaty, particularly citing the American NATO missile-defence sites in Poland and Romania. Russia also will be able to openly produce more of the banned missiles and portray this as a necessary response to the U.S. decision. In fact, Russia has seen the INF treaty as a constraint on its military capabilities and had unsuccessfully sought to either extend the number of parties or abolish the accord in the last decade. At the same time, it will try to influence public opinion in NATO countries to prevent the potential deployment of new American missiles in its neighbourhood.
The U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty will pose a challenge to NATO cohesion. Many Allies regard it as destabilising, as would possible U.S. attempts to deploy INF-range missiles in Europe. Paradoxically, the lack of stronger support by European Allies had limited the credibility of the U.S. pressure on Russia related to violation of the INF treaty (tougher statements in this regard were adopted by NATO only in 2017 and 2018). The growing unilateralism in U.S. actions might strengthen the desire among some European countries to pursue greater autonomy in defence policy and dialogue with Russia. At the same time, it might also mark greater U.S. readiness to boost the response to Russian actions through cooperation with selected Allies, even in spite of disagreements among Trump’s closest advisers on the validity of such an approach.