Experts Urge U.S. Not to Violate Critical Arms Treaty

Nuclear security experts are urging the U.S. government not to respond to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with our own violation. Developing a new ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) is not the answer to Russia’s violation, and it does not add to America’s military capabilities.

President Ronald Reagan negotiated and in 1987 signed the INF Treaty, which for the first time in history eliminated an entire class of weapons. The United States and Russia destroyed over 2,600 brand new intermediate-range missiles, and the treaty prohibiting the construction of ground-based intermediate-range missiles has remained in force ever since. However, Russia has recently deployed a treaty-violating missile. Some U.S. voices have argued for developing an American treaty-violating missile to counter the Russian one, but cooler heads urge caution, arguing that the U.S. should work to bring Russia back into compliance.

The treaty “remains strongly in the U.S. interest,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Steven Pifer argues, “as well as the interest of America's allies in Europe and Asia, that neither Russia nor the United States possess ground-based, intermediate-range systems. That means preserving the INF Treaty and bringing Russia back into full compliance.” Russia’s violation is a problem - but a bigger problem would be a Russia unconstrained by arms control treaties.

Steven Pifer says deployment of GLCMs to Central Europe “would be hugely provocative to Moscow.” U.S. security interests are better served, he believes, by remaining in the INF treaty and working to bring Russia back into compliance. Giving up on the treaty and violating it ourselves would make the world less safe.

Russia “spends a lot of time struggling against the constraints of the international agreements of which they’re a part - that’s a problem,” argues Alex Bell from The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation “But the bigger problem… is a Russia unconstrained by international agreements, with Putin free to build up his arsenals to his heart’s content. Russia is the only country in the world that poses an existential threat to the United States – that’s exactly why we don’t want to do anything to increase the likelihood that we can get into a nuclear conflict with the only country that can destroy us.” Former Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs Tom Countryman agrees: “we should make choices that contribute to stability.”

Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is no excuse for the United States to follow suit, says Countryman: “Russia cheats, and the U.S. doesn’t. We don’t, because we have a higher standard. We can have a higher standard because we have a military whose conventional deterrence capability is unquestioned.” Abrogating the INF Treaty would greatly undermine other international commitments in which the U.S. is involved.

Tit-for-tat violations would deal a blow not only to U.S. security interests, but to U.S. credibility. “The last thing we should do is say we are going to walk away from the treaty because then the failure of the treaty regime would be on us and not them,” stresses Former Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy. Countryman elaborates: “Saying we’re not interested in arms control agreements undermines credibility of U.S. commitments and negotiating strength in every context. The way to emphasize credibility of enforcement is not to simply refuse to negotiate.”

There is a growing Washington chorus now pushing U.S. violation of the treaty as a rational response to Russia’s violation. Bell, Countryman, Flournoy, Pifer and the majority of nuclear security experts strongly disagree. “We have multiple nuclear crises on our hands right now,” says Bell, warning of the risk of conflict with North Korea and potentially Iran, “adding a third one of expanding nuclear capabilities in Europe and provoking the Russians into a third situation is dangerous.”

The United States has a multitude of tools at its disposal to appropriately react to Russia’s violation and bring them back into the treaty. It does not involve production of a new weapons program that would violate the INF Treaty.

“We should present Moscow with unacceptable alternatives… the resolution that that unacceptable alternative is necessarily and exclusively a new nuclear capability. I think we have other options,” suggests Countryman. “Building a new US nuke is not a coherent military response. We have enough political nuclear weapons. What I want to do is trust the overwhelming conventional superiority that the US has and rely on that to counter the threatening Russian maneuver.”

--Meghan McCall is the Policy Associate and Special Assistant to the President at Ploughshares Fund.

More resources

--“Is America About to Dump the INF Treaty?” Dave Majumdar for The National Interest, September 18, 2017 here.

--“Save the INF Treaty--but not by repeating history,” Thomas Graham Jr. and Bernadette Stadler for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 13, 2017 here.

--“The GOP’s dangerous plan to build more nukes,” Tom Collina and Rose Blanchard for POLITICO, August 11, 2017 here.

--“Congress Must Preserve the INF Treaty with Russa,” Thomas Graham Jr. for The National Interest, July 19, 2017 here.

--“Why America Must Stop Russia from Violating the INF Treaty” Steven Pifer for The National Interest, April 23, 2017 here.

--“Responding to the INF Treaty Violation” Michael Krepon for Arms Control Wonk, March 5, 2017 here.

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