The implications of the U.S. withdrawal from INF

Nov 8, 2018 | Olesia Gretskaia

What does the recent decision by President Donald Trump to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty mean for broader U.S.-Russian security relations? According to Amy Woolf, a Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy at the Congressional Research Service who gave a talk on the subject at the November 1st CISSM Global Forum, the U.S. decision to pull out of the treaty reflects its concerns with Russia’s ongoing violation of the Treaty. The timing of the decision to withdraw, however, could be explained, in part,  by the current administration’s aversion to arms control in general, and to the particular personalities of the U.S. officials involved in the decision. 

Some observers will argue that pulling out of the INF treaty is an opportunity for the United States to get rid of an outdated agreement that does not reflect current international security challenges, Woolf noted. The treaty, the argument goes, no longer responds to  military realities, specifically, China’s ongoing deployment of intermediate-range missiles and the U.S. inability to deploy land-based intermediate range missiles in Asia. Russia has also noted that it is increasingly surrounded by countries, such as China, who possess the intermediate-range, land-based systems the deal prohibits—a threat environment the United States does not face. 

Other analysts argue that the United States should withdraw from the treaty as a way to respond to and punish Russia for violating its terms, said Woolf. But this approach could be misguided, in that terminating the INF treaty is unlikely to make Russia more compliant with it and could give Russia the freedom to deploy significant numbers of intermediate-range missiles.

Opponents of withdrawing from the treaty argue that it is an essential part of the global security architecture and a significant arms control achievement, noted Woolf. Rather than terminate it, some argue that a more viable solution would focus on pursuing additional diplomatic steps to encourage Russia to return to compliance and, possibly, extending the INF treaty to incorporate more countries, like China. But, as Woolf acknowledged, this is an unlikely possibility at this point as China has expressed no interest in joining the Treaty.

In other words, the meaning of a U.S. withdrawal from the treaty to U.S. policy makers depends on your previous views of the U.S.-Russian relationship and the value of arms control, in general.