Without the INF Treaty with the U.S., Russia can build its arsenal of intermediate-range missiles, Stanford scholar says

U.S. suspension of the INF Treaty – the first step toward withdrawing from the 1987 arms control agreement – allows Russia to develop and deploy missiles that can travel between 3,000–5,500 kilometers, according to a Stanford scholar with diplomatic experience in the region. While the U.S. is also developing intermediate-range missiles, where it could deploy them is unclear, he said.

With the U.S. suspension of the Cold War-era nuclear arms agreement known as the INF Treaty, Russia is free to develop and deploy intermediate-range missiles, says Stanford scholar Steven Pifer. While there is a more recent agreement in place that limits the number of weapons the U.S. and Russia can stockpile – that could deter the threat of a nuclear arms race – it is set to expire in two years, he said.

Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer’s research focuses on nuclear arms control, Ukraine, Russia and European security. (Image credit: Damian M. Marhefka)

Here, Pifer, the William J. Perry Fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, shares his thoughts on the U.S. suspending its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the 1987 agreement that banned all U.S. and Soviet (now Russian) ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Pifer worked for over 25 years with the State Department, where he focused on U.S. relations with the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as arms control and security issues. He served as ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. In addition to Ukraine, he has served at the U.S. embassies in Warsaw, Moscow and London as well as with the U.S. delegation to the negotiation on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva.


What led to the demise of the INF Treaty?

The main cause of the treaty’s demise was Russia’s decision to develop and deploy a ground-launched cruise missile, called the 9M729, that can fly to intermediate ranges. In 2014, the Obama administration charged that Russia had violated the INF Treaty by testing the missile. In 2017, U.S. officials charged that Russia had begun deploying the missile.

Although the Trump administration stated in 2017 that its goal was to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty, the administration did not appear to have a serious strategy to apply political and military leverage to affect the Kremlin’s calculation. That may have something to do with the appointment of John Bolton as national security advisor; Mr. Bolton has long been on record opposing the INF Treaty.


Is pulling out of the treaty advantageous to the United States?

The U.S. could not be expected to abide by the treaty forever if Russia continued its violation. But U.S. security interests – and those of U.S. allies in Europe and Asia – would have been better served by maintaining the treaty (with Russian compliance). Without the treaty, Russia can build up its intermediate-range missiles.

The U.S. military is developing an intermediate-range missile (development was permitted by the treaty as long as it did not involve flight testing), but it is not clear when that missile could be fielded. There is also a question as to where such a missile might be deployed. It is very unlikely that NATO could achieve a political consensus on deploying a U.S. intermediate-range missile in Europe, and Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea would not be enthusiastic about hosting it. Intermediate-range missiles based in the United States will not bother Moscow much, since they could not reach Russian territory.


Could pulling out of the treaty accelerate a new arms race between the United States and Russia? If so, how?

Russia will continue to deploy the 9M729 and may develop other ground-based intermediate-range missiles. It remains unclear how the United States and NATO will respond militarily; as noted, finding consensus within the alliance to deploy a U.S. intermediate-range missile in Europe is unlikely. But NATO could take other steps to offset Russia’s missiles.

With the INF Treaty gone, attention will turn to the only other agreement limiting U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons – the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In contrast to the INF Treaty, Russia is complying with New START, which limits each country to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

Unfortunately, New START expires by its terms in two years. It can be extended by up to five years, and the Russians have expressed interest in that. Trump administration officials say that they are considering the issue. Extension should be a no-brainer. That would continue New START’s constraints on Russian strategic forces to 2026. It would not hinder U.S. modernization plans, since they are sized to fit within New START’s limits. And extension would continue the flow of information the United States gets about Russian strategic forces from data exchanges, notifications, inspections and other verification measures. That enhances confidence and allows the Pentagon to avoid worst-case assumptions.

If New START lapses in 2021, there will be no agreements constraining U.S. and Russian nuclear forces.


Does pulling out of the INF Treaty serve Russian interests?

Despite the fact that Russia is violating the treaty, Russian officials have professed their interest in maintaining it. However, the Kremlin likely is pleased that the United States is withdrawing, as that will allow the Russians to blame Washington for killing the treaty.

Once the treaty is dead, Russia will be free to deploy the 9M729 and possibly other intermediate-range missiles.


What happens next?

Six months after it gives notice of intention to withdraw, the U.S. government presumably will withdraw from the treaty. At that point, Russian officials will likely state that they are no longer bound by the agreement.


What could save the treaty?

Unfortunately, the prospects for saving the treaty are very small. The U.S. position is that Russia must eliminate the 9M729. Russian officials have given no indication that they are prepared to do that. And the Trump administration – likely affected by Mr. Bolton’s disdain for the treaty – has no serious strategy to persuade the Kremlin to change its course.


What are solutions going forward?

Both Moscow and Washington seem to have forgotten the value of arms control in reducing the nuclear threat, promoting stability and transparency and saving money. It is difficult to be optimistic in the near term, but we can hope that at some point U.S. and Russian officials will rediscover the contribution that arms control has made in the past to enhancing their countries’ security and global stability.

Pifer is also affiliated with Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation and The Europe Center.