Nukes of Hazard: 30 Years of Nuclear Security is Profoundly at Risk

By Maggie Tennis

It is no secret that US-Russia relations are in crisis mode, one cause and symptom of which is a breakdown in the historic nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Without the bilateral arms control regime, global stability is in peril.

Perhaps the most significant treaty under threat is the 1987 Intermediate-Range Forces (INF) treaty, due to a Russian decision to violate its terms a few years back. So far, the two governments have been unable to resolve the resulting compliance dispute, which has grown to include Russian accusations of noncompliance against the United States, and recent efforts by congressional Republicans to weaken US compliance with the treaty.

What is INF?

Signed by US President Ronald Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the INF treaty eliminated existing nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers and outlawed the possession, production, and flight-testing of such missiles. The landmark agreement was borne out of a period of nuclear instability in Europe due to a burgeoning arms race of intermediate- and short-range missiles. The range of these systems would allow NATO and Russian forces to strike one another’s territory.

Compliance Dispute

In 2014, Washington accused Russia of testing a ground-launched cruise missile with an intermediate range. The INF treaty prohibits tests of intermediate-range systems. Last spring, the State Department issued its annual arms control compliance report confirming that Russia had deployed the system in question, seemingly an extended-range version of what is otherwise a treaty-permitted short-range cruise missile. Russia denies the accusation and charges the United States with its own failure to comply with the treaty’s terms.

Congressional Republicans, the White House, & INF

In 2017, congressional Republicans introduced language for the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would fund treaty-permissible research and development around an intermediate-range ground launched cruise missile. While INF bans testing and deployment of intermediate-range systems, any US initiative related to these types of missiles allow Moscow to point fingers at Washington as violating the spirit of the treaty and to ignore US accusations against Russia. Furthermore, any action toward producing these types of missiles would likely alienate US allies in Europe, who view such missiles as destabilizing. The worst case scenario would see a NATO-Russia arms race.

House Republicans took it a step further by attempting to condition the funding of an extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) on a Russian return to compliance with INF. Although this measure did not ultimately find its way into the final version of the NDAA, it nevertheless showed disregard toward an important and stabilizing treaty that defines US-Russian nuclear cooperation.

The Trump White House issued its official strategy regarding INF on 8 December. The strategy, like the NDAA, recommends research and development on an intermediate-range ground-launched system. It also advocates diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia.

Why it matters

Without INF, the entire bilateral arms control order could collapse. Especially at risk is the New START treaty, which both sides are successfully adhering to as of the 5 February implementation deadline. The erosion of the INF treaty could trigger the unraveling of the entire arms control regime—especially if the ill will caused by the dispute thwarts the extension of New START. New START expires in 2021 but can be extended if both sides agree. So far, they haven’t. Further discord on INF threatens the potential of agreement going forward. Absent New START, both countries would be left without restrictions on their nuclear arsenals and may be compelled to proliferate their forces.

US military officials have firmly declared that there is no military requirement for an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile like the one referenced in the NDAA and White House strategy. Both plans likely will hurt the chances of resolving the dispute with Russia. The outlook for saving INF looks grim. That matters for the integrity of the global arms control order, the long-term security of Europe, and the possibility of negotiating an extension of New START. And with most other bilateral treaties already compromised, New START may be the last remaining hope for preserving the US-Russian arms control relationship that is critical for global nuclear stability.


Maggie Tennis is a former Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow. She attended Brown University.

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