By Ksenia Lake Contributing Writer 29 April 2019

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty no longer works in its current form. Withdrawal from the treaty could do more harm than good for the United States and its allies, providing strategic advantages to Russia. To avoid the emergence of an arms race, the United States should resume negotiations with Russia and amend the INF Treaty.

The INF Treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on December 8, 1987, was a significant step towards ensuring transatlantic security. It was the first U.S.-Soviet treaty to employ intrusive monitoring mechanisms in its verification regime. Additionally, it established the Special Verification Commission tasked with the promotion of the objectives and implementation of all the treaty’s provisions. According to the Congressional Research Service report released on February 2, 2019, the United States and Russia intend to suspend their participation in the INF Treaty. The decision follows repeated U.S. claims that Russia violated the treaty from 2014 to 2018.

The U.S. attempts to convince Russia to maintain compliance with the INF Treaty during this period were unsuccessful. In the early 2000s, Russia grew increasingly uncomfortable with the terms of the treaty. Russia complained the treaty prevented it from adapting to emerging threats from its neighbors in the Middle East and Asia, including Iran, Pakistan, and China. Additionally, Russia voiced concerns with the United States and NATO’s plans to deploy missile defense assets in Europe, particularly in Poland and Romania. Senior military officials in Russia suggested that the missiles targeting cities in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic would help to successfully deter these states.

In 2007, Russia, with support from the United States, sought to address some of these concerns by submitting a proposal to the United Nations that would convert the INF Treaty into a multilateral treaty that could be signed by all states with intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles. After the proposal failed to attract adherents, Russia focused on developing INF missiles to counter the perceived threat independently. According to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, Russia began covert development of an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile designated 9M729 probably by the mid-2000s. Missile tests violating the terms of the INF Treaty began as early as 2008 at the Kapustin Yar test site in western Russia, eventually leading to the U.S. and Russia’s exit from the treaty earlier this year.  

Under Article XV of the treaty, withdrawal is supposed to take effect within six months following the announcements. Treaty withdrawal would allow the United States to expand its reach and improve deterrent capabilities without further stretching its naval forces.  Withdrawal from the treaty would additionally provide the United States freedom to deploy intermediate-range land-based missiles on the territory of allies, like Japan, the Philippines, and possibly northern Australia to counter both Russia and China. However, unlike Russia, the United States has not yet determined whether it would want to deploy land-based INF missiles itself nor has the United States funded a program to develop such missiles.

Evidence suggests Russia is highly likely to benefit from treaty withdrawal more than the United States and its allies. Moreover, the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty could damage NATO cohesion. Many NATO countries continue to support the INF Treaty; following withdrawal, NATO allies might be unwilling to host missiles on their soil. At the same time, Russia would get a green light to move swiftly from testing to deployment of the missiles, gaining a strategic advantage over NATO allies.

Amending the INF Treaty is essential in order to save it.  It is crucial to resume negotiations with Russia and other nuclear states as soon as possible to achieve progress before withdrawal from the treaty is finalized on August 2, 2019. Treaty negotiations should consider converting the INF treaty to a multilateral one, similar to what Russia attempted to pursue in 2007. While all states in possession of land-based missiles in the INF range would be welcome to join, China is a key counterpart. Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is partially motivated by security concerns with that country. A successfully updated treaty would not only increase transparency and trust between the parties but would prevent a security dilemma crisis which could result in a global arms race.

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Ksenia Lake is an M.A. candidate in International Affairs with a concentration on U.S. foreign policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is currently a research analyst at the global, risk-management consulting firm IntegrityRisk International, handling a wide variety of U.S. and international due diligence and business intelligence work for corporate and financial-industry clients. Ksenia earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Publishing and Editing at the National Technical University of Ukraine “Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute” and has a native-level proficiency in Russian and Ukrainian.