Why a Landmark Cold War Arms Treaty Is Under Threat

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump said he intends to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia because of alleged violations by Moscow. The Kremlin says it’s obeying the landmark pact and denounced Trump’s plans as many analysts warned the Cold War-era arms control system is now under threat.

1. What is the INF treaty?

The treaty, signed in December 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, was a high point for U.S.-Soviet arms control. It was preceded by a spiraling arms race: In response to Soviet deployments of SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles that could strike Western Europe in the late 1970s, the U.S. put missiles of its own in West Germany, Italy and the U.K. After years of unproductive talks between the two sides on limiting the weapons, Reagan and Gorbachev reached agreement to eliminate them entirely. The INF treaty, which has no expiration date, called for both sides to destroy and never deploy again ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (300-3,500 miles), either nuclear or conventional. The pact allows similar weapons fired from ships or aircraft. A total of 2,692 missiles were destroyed by 1991 under the treaty, according to the U.S. State Department.

2. Why does Trump want to pull out?

Because the U.S. says the Russians haven’t been following the rules. The U.S. alleged in 2014 that Russia had tested a weapon, the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile, at a range that fell under the treaty. In 2017, the U.S. said Russia had deployed that weapon. Then in October 2018, NATO declared that Russia was in violation of the treaty and called for talks. The Kremlin has denied breaking the pact and has called on the U.S. to show proof. And Moscow has accused the U.S. of violating the treaty with its missile-defense systems in Europe, a charge Washington rejects.

3. What would happen without the treaty?

If the U.S. pulls out, Russia could go ahead with further deployment of the missiles that allegedly violate the treaty. The U.S. is already developing a weapon of its own to counter it, raising the possibility of a repeat of the arms race in Europe.

4. What’s been the response?

Russia reacted with alarm to Trump’s announcement, but noted that the U.S. so far hasn’t taken any of the official steps needed to pull out of the pact. Trump’s plan caused jitters in Germany, a country that would be ground zero in a nuclear war in Europe and was at the front line of superpower confrontation during the Cold War. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Trump after the announcement to underline the “importance of this treaty for the European security and its strategic balance.” China, wary of a new U.S. weapons buildup, said a pullout would have “multiple negative effects.”

5. Could diplomacy still save the pact?

The U.S. and Russia have had several rounds of discussions on the alleged violations since at least 2014, but without progress. In early October 2018, the U.S. ambassador to NATO warned the U.S. might “take out” the Russian missiles, but later said she wasn’t advocating a preemptive strike. Trump’s threat could be an attempt to shake up the talks, forcing Russia to admit a violation in order to preserve the treaty. Trump also said he would consider a new pact that also included China, since Beijing wasn’t a party to the original deal and has deployed a significant arsenal of the weapons in recent years. However, Chinese officials have shown no desire to join a treaty that would ban a large part of their nuclear missiles.

6. Are other major arms-control deals under threat?

If the U.S. pulls out of the INF treaty, the only remaining pact regulating the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals would be New START, a treaty signed in 2010 by then-Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. It sets limits on overall totals for nuclear weapons for each side. New START expires in 2021 but can be extended for five years if both sides agree. So far, talks have not yet begun on prolonging the deal.

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