A Future for the INF Treaty?

By Maryia Hushcha

The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. It was the first time, that the then superpowers agreed to reduce – not only limit - their nuclear arsenal. Just recently, on February 2, the Trump administration declared a suspension of U.S. obligations under the INF Treaty and formally announced its intention to withdraw from the treaty in six months. The US claims that a new Russian missile falls within the 500-5,500km (310-3,400 miles) range banned by the treaty. On the other hand, Moscow says that US anti-ballistic missile interceptors being deployed in Eastern Europe could potentially violate the terms of the agreement. It is thus the second disarmament agreement which the US has withdrawn from in the last year. The other one is the nuclear deal with Iran, or the JCPOA, in May 2018.

On February 11, the International Institute for Peace organized a public discussion on the topic ‘A Future for the INF Treaty?’ With the US administration announcing on February 2, 2019 its withdrawal from a major bilateral arms control agreement with Russia, concerns over global, and particularly European security, have become ever more prominent. It is feared that a new arms race can start between the two major nuclear weapons possessors. The abrogation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty also undermines the global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation regime. These and other prominent questions were addressed during the panel discussion by Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the International Organizations in Vienna; Deputy Permanent Representative Cynthia Plath, U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and the Vice President of the IIP; and Professor Heinz Gärtner from the University of Vienna and a member of Advisory board of the IIP. The welcoming speech was held by Hannes Swoboda, the President of the IIP and a former MEP. The discussion was moderated by Stephanie Fenkart, Director of the IIP.


Opening statement by DPR Cynthia Plath (the remarks express the opinion of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the position of the IIP):

It is correct to say that Russia is to blame for the demise of the INF Treaty. One of the key elements of the 2018 United States’ Nuclear Posture Review is that we live in a world of great power competition facing an unpreceded range of threats. This environment is partially a result of actions of rogue regimes, such as Iran and North Korea, but also actions of Russia and China who modernized their nuclear weapons. The United States remain committed to effective arms control, its commitment to allies and partners remains valid. The INF Treaty was one of the most successful treaties, with many intermediate and small range missiles having been destroyed in the early days after its conclusion in 1987. Russia has been violating the treaty since 2014. It has produced and flight tested the 9M729 missile, also known as SSC8, with a range between 500km and 5500 km that is prohibited by the INF Treaty. The United States have worked during Obama administration to induce Russia to return to compliance with its obligations under the treaty. Russia indicated its desire to leave the Treaty already in 2004 when the then Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov named it a cold war relic. The Trump administration redoubled its efforts to bring Russia into compliance. It provided detailed information on the missile and launcher, as well as on the missile’s test history, along with other details. On December 4, 2018 the US announced that Russia was in material breach of the treaty and that Washington would suspend its obligations under the Treaty within 60 days if Russia did not return to compliance. On February 2, 2019 the US provided a six months notice of withdrawal. The European NATO allies supported the US in its decision. The situation today does not mean, however, that the US is walking away from arms control. The US remains committed to arms control, but those efforts must be verifiable and enforceable, and the partners must comply with their obligations. Russia does not comply with the INF Treaty and the US must take these violations seriously. Speaking about future prospects, since step by step approach is not effective any longer, security conditions have become much less favorable. To make further progress on arms control the United States must look for practical approaches to the existing challenges. Therefore, in the 2018 Preparatory Committee to the NPT Review Conference, the United States announced a new initiative – Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND). They are currently finalizing plans to operationalize it.

Opening statement by Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov (the remarks express the opinion of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the position of the IIP):

While blaming Russia for implementing a nuclear weapons modernization program, the US itself spends billions of dollars improving its nuclear arsenal. The United States is to blame if the INF Treaty dies. The US has never presented any facts confirming that Russia was in violation of the Treaty. It simply repeated its accusations for many times. In September 2014 a US delegation came to Moscow for talks, including representatives of the White House, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the National Nuclear Administration, and the Department of State. It led to nothing, same as the five years of consultations that followed. The American side never gave the Russian side any details about what it considered Russian violations of the INF Treaty, dismissing any requests for such details as ‘fishing’. In order to present evidence of Treaty violations, one needs to provide the following facts. First, it is necessary to identify the missile that violates the provisions of the treaty. The American side did it only fourteen months ago. Second, one needs to identify the missile launchers which was done by the US only four months ago. Finally, it is necessary to present objective data that proves that the range of the missile in question exceeds the limits allowed by the Treaty. This has never been done.

Russian claims about US violations of the INF Treaty are often seen as an artificially created counter-narrative to the accusations made by Washington. This is a mistake. Russia raised the issue of US’ incompliance with the Treaty’s provisions as early as 1999.

Finally, the US claims that it possesses a complete knowledge about Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty, saying that flight tests of the non-compliant missile were conducted between 2003 and 2011. If so, why did Washington raise this issue only in 2014 and why did it identify the missile as late as in December 2017? The United States were also not able to specify the range of the missile. Washington claimed that it was in the range between 500-5500km, but it is quite a big range. To make a legitimate claim one needs to be more precise. Therefore, the Russian side maintains that the US does not possess any real information about Russian violations.

Opening Statement by Angela Kane:

With the INF Treaty being effectively dead, it is important to talk about where the international security regime stands today.  This topic is not only of geopolitical but also of economic and ecological significance. Ever since the Cuban missile crisis the United States and the Soviet Union have always engaged in the arms control. No other countries have done that. This enabled them to manage strategic competition. The INF abrogation means that there is basically just one arms control treaty left which also is valid only until 2021, that is the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). It can be extended one time but the question is whether it can actually happen in the atmosphere that is so clearly antagonistic and lacking cooperation. There are no other talks that are currently envisaged and it is very much of concern.

Can the treaty be saved? Or should it even be saved? With all the problems that have been occurring over decades, probably it cannot. Maybe it should not be saved, as it restricts only two countries, while there are other states, such as the DPRK, Iran, Israel and other that have intermediate range missiles and they are not bound by any treaty.  The question therefore arises whether the INF Treaty should be multilateralized. It is very unlikely as it was negotiated between two states and there are no incentives for other countries to join it. The benefits of this treaty are obvious. It ensures reduced mutual perception of threat, predictability, relationship, and habits of cooperation.

Europe is most affected by the demise of the INF Treaty and generally of arms control treaties. Although NATO supported the decision of the US to withdraw, it did not really consult its allies prior to making this decision. Even if the US is seen to be leading in NATO, it still needs to consult with allies, especially on matters of nuclear policy, as it is a very sensitive area for the European public. With the demise of the INF Treaty, the public interest in this issue has resurfaced again and there will be a much stronger debate on stationing nuclear weapons in Europe. 

There is the need to have more useful dialogue to see what can be done. The EU also has a role to play here. The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference will be held in 2020 and a Preparatory Committee to the conference will be held in May this year. The events around the INF Treaty will significantly influence the NPT process. The 2020 Conference will also mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT and it would be unfortunate to see a roll back on nuclear disarmament at it.


Opening Statement by Heinz Gärtner

In the 1950s-1960s the two Cold War superpowers had a strategy of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Each of them had a second strike capability by a strategic nuclear weapon, meaning that in case of a nuclear strike by one side, the other would respond in the same manner. This would lead to the destruction of both sides. The question was only about who would die first and who second. The medium range weapons were therefore created to prevent the escalation of the conflict to the strategic level. The Soviet Union had plans to deploy such weapons in Eastern Europe which would mean that Western Europe would be in their range. Also, Western Europeans were concerned about a possibility of a nuclear war between the superpowers in the European theater. In order to prevent such a scenario, the INF Treaty was concluded in 1987 between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now the Treaty is being suspended.

If both sides wanted to save the INF Treaty, they could have easily made an update to the existing provisions, as the present violations are only marginal. However, the military technology is on such level today that the INF is not appropriate any more, as it constrains possibilities of upgrades, especially for the United States. The US wants to develop low yield nuclear weapons, with the Pentagon and the State Department claiming that they provide better deterrence. However, low yield nuclear weapons also mean that they can actually be used on the battlefield which is very concerning.

Another issue is China. Beijing’s military strategy is based mainly on intermediate range missiles and China possesses just a few strategic nuclear weapons. Russia has also complained about the fact that China is not a party to the INF Treaty. In reality, Moscow is not that unhappy to see the Treaty die, since it can now deploy its intermediate range missiles in Asia, thereby countering the Chinese presence there. But so can do the US too. The question about the United States is where it would station its nuclear weapons. Guam is too far away, therefore the US would prefer to use the territory of their Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea.  With the INF Treaty dead, not only the European but also the Asian theater comes into the picture. Another factor is North Korea. It is possible that Pyongyang can develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the American western coast. However, that would be an absolute red line for the United States.  

Despite the efforts of the nuclear powers to limit the strike capability of nuclear weapons you never can be sure that it will not escalate to the strategic level. Strategic weapons are now restrained by the New START Treaty. Most likely, it will not simply expire in 2021, but President Trump will announce his unwillingness to extend the treaty even earlier during the electoral campaign.

To conclude, under the current circumstances, there will not be any revival of the INF Treaty in the next six months. A super treaty on intermediate range nuclear weapons with all nuclear powers on board will not be concluded. A new global security situation is shaping today which is characterized by multiplication of armament, multipolarity, and polarization.


DPR Plath stated that the existence of a Russian missile that was in non-compliance with the INF Treaty was confirmed not only by US intelligence but also by the European allies. She said that Russia aimed to undermine European security. Speaking about China’s potential participation in a multilateral INF Treaty, she said that the United States were open for such discussion, although multiple attempts had been already made by Washington to address it, with no success, however. She disagreed with the concern about the New START Treaty being in danger of demise, saying that there was still plenty of time until its expiration date and that it was easy to renew.

Amb. Ulyanov argued that the US representative once again did not provide any specific answer to the questions posed by him in his initial statement. He regretted that the European allies supported the US position after having avoided to take sides on the INF issue for many years. He stated the United States violated a number of international documents by withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Treaty, not ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, and withdrawing from the Joint and Comprehensive Plan of Action concluded with Iran in 2015. The Ambassador disagreed that Russia was happy about the INF Treaty demise.


In the Q&A session the following questions and comments were addressed to the panelists from the audience:

-          What has been learnt since the conclusion of the INF Treaty? It is worrying, especially for Europeans, that until today about 90% of all nuclear weapons in the world are possessed by the United States and Russia.

-          It is not only China that aims for production of nuclear weapons but other countries too. What to do about that?

-          Given the fact that the INF Treaty was created to protect Europe, what actions should Europe take to protect itself? What should be the role of the US?

-          Are the European governments silent because they fear a new movement for peace, as the one that was very strong in the1970s?

In conclusion, it seems to be clear from the statements and reactions made by the US and Russian representatives that there is lack of political willingness to save the INF Treaty or even to have a constructive debate on the issue. Besides the straightforward danger of enhanced nuclear armament and upgrade programs by the US and Russia, the abrogation of the INF Treaty is indicative of the direction in which relations between Moscow and Washington have been heading for the past five years, reaching a new low this month. In this situation, Europe must take a more pro-active approach to its security policy, while also maintaining dialogue with both the United States and the Russian Federation and working towards creating a favorable climate for talks.


Please, watch the video of the discussion below.