The Trump administration has decided to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the most comprehensive disarmament treaty ever negotiated between Washington and Moscow. National Security Adviser John Bolton, a long-time opponent of arms control, reportedly will inform Russian President Vladimir Putin this week that the United States will do so. The Trump administration will also be briefing our key European allies on the decision, which will complicate relations with Germany and France who favor maintaining the treaty. This is the latest in a series of U.S. steps over the past 20 years that have put the Russians on the defensive, and led Russian President Vladimir Putin to be more assertive in protecting Moscow’s interests in East Europe.
The INF treaty actually eliminated an entire class of intermediate-range missiles from the U.S. and Soviet arsenals in 1987. The Pentagon opposed the treaty, and Secretary of Defense Weinberger and his deputy for arms control and disarmament, Richard Perle, resigned in protest over President Ronald Reagan’s decision to go forward. The Pentagon has opposed all presidential decisions to pursue disarmament, although—in the case of INF—the Soviets destroyed more than twice as many missiles as the United States, and the European theatre became safer for U.S. forces stationed there. The treaty and the improved bilateral relations actually led to a slowdown in military spending in both the United States and Russia.
In 2002, President George W. Bush created the worst of all possible strategic worlds when he abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), the cornerstone of strategic deterrence and one of the pearls of Soviet-American arms control policy. Bush inflicted the diplomatic wound of abrogating a treaty without cause in order to incur the expense of moving into the world of National Missile Defense (NMD) without any guarantee that even rogue missiles could be stopped. There is no better example of the creation of national insecurity than the Bush administration’s foolish belief that we could create an impenetrable nuclear umbrella.
President Bill Clinton bears heavy responsibility for the initial worsening of the Russian-American relationship because of his expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a betrayal of Washington’s commitment to never “leap frog” over East Germany to seek new members in East Europe if the Soviets were to withdraw their 380,00 troops from the region. Clinton invited former members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO. President Bush worsened the situation by inviting former Soviet republics into NATO. Bush even toyed with the idea of inviting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel convinced him of the heavy risk of such a decision. The conventional wisdom is that Putin is responsible for the worsening of relations with the West because of the Russian-Georgian war in the summer of 2008 and the seizure of the Crimea in 2014, but U.S. machinations in both Tbilisi and Kiev had much to do with Russian actions.
The New York Times, for example, in its discussion of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF treaty simple echoes Washington’s arguments that Putin’s actions in East Europe are entirely to blame. While it is true that Moscow’s development of a land-based cruise missile, the SSC-8, presumably violates the treaty, the actions of recent American administrations are primarily responsible for the worsening of relations between the United States and Russia. The efforts of Bush and President Barack Obama to deploy a regional missile defense in East Europe, which was opposed by our NATO European allies, antagonized Russia, and explains the increase in Russian troop exercises on its borders with former Soviet republics. Clinton’s dissolution of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency worsened the domestic problem of negotiating any disarmament agreement within our own national security bureaucracy without strong disarmament specialists to stand up to the opposition of the Pentagon.
Without the limitations of the INF treaty, the United States is expected to pursue a new version of the Tomahawk cruise missile to be launched from land as well as from ships and submarines. Future versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile, moreover, could be fitted with nuclear warheads, which would worsen the problem of verification. Any future deployment of nuclear weapons on ships, which was stopped by President George H.W. Bush, would encourage Russia and China to do the same, and thus compromise a clear U.S. advantage in sea power.
The withdrawal from INF marks a major victory for Donald Trump’s relatively new “war cabinet” and particularly for National Security Adviser Bolton. Trump continues to pay lip service to the idea of improving Russian-American relations, but there is no indication that any member of his national security team shares such an objective.