This year Congress worked more quickly than usual to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation that sets defense policy and spending levels. Limitations on the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey and restrictions on Chinese telecommunications companies dominated the headlines, but buried among more than 2,000 pages of text approved earlier this month are provisions that threaten the already-fragile 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). Negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty eliminated ground-launched missile systems with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, and is a cornerstone of the modern US-Russian arms control architecture.
The 2019 defense bill renews calls for the development of a new missile system that will not only violate the INF Treaty but also put the United States on a poor footing with its European allies. The legislation relies on the dubious claim that the United States can “suspend” the INF Treaty in response to a violation by Russia. The threat of a new missile system is unlikely to make Russia return to compliance with the treaty and squanders the opportunities that may exist to preserve the agreement. Of course, it is possible that Russia will choose to continue violating the INF Treaty regardless of the United States’ response. Rather than preparing for this possibility by strengthening US alliances, Congress’s approach increases the likelihood that the treaty will disintegrate.
A shift in strategy. The United States first openly recognized Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty in 2014, concluding that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile prohibited by the treaty. While President Barack Obama’s administration opted for an under-the-radar diplomatic approach to address Russia’s violation, Congress changed tack last year when it created a program of record to research and develop an intermediate-range missile system that would itself violate the treaty if flight-tested. A February 2017 press release from the office of Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said that the measure “would allow the United States to take steps to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty and begin developing similar missile systems.”
This year, lawmakers redoubled their efforts to pull the United States out of the treaty. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act includes provisions that require the president to determine whether Russia is in violation of the treaty and whether the treaty prohibitions continue to apply to the United States. Alongside a recommendation for additional funding to support further research and development on an intermediate-range system, the bill states that Russia is in material breach of its treaty obligations and that the United States is legally entitled to unilaterally “suspend” the agreement. This legislation is not a blueprint for preserving the arms control pact while addressing Russia’s violation; it is an exit strategy.
Why a new missile system is a bad idea. Congress’s approach emulates Russia’s bad behavior at its own peril. Developing a new ground-launched cruise missile and threatening to abrogate the INF Treaty may anger Moscow, but it will not impose meaningful military costs. At the same time, this approach will be financially and politically expensive for the United States. The Pentagon has not requested a new ground-launched cruise missile, and spending resources to research, develop, and potentially deploy an unnecessary new system will siphon funding away from other defense priorities.
In addition to being militarily unnecessary, basing US intermediate-range missiles in a location where they can reach Russia will pose serious political and diplomatic challenges. By aggravating existing divisions within NATO at a time when the Trump administration has offered inconsistent messaging about its commitment to US alliances, Congress’s approach could ultimately serve Russian objectives. Russia has registered its distrust in NATO clearly and, as in the Cold War, Moscow can exacerbate tensions within the alliance by holding targets at risk that allies might not be willing to collectively defend. For a US intermediate-range system to be effective, it would have to be based on NATO territory in Europe. This was controversial in the 1980s, drawing thousands of citizens to the streets of European capitals in protest. Basing a new US system in Europe today will be similarly contentious and will put allied governments under significant political pressure domestically. Convincing allied capitals to accommodate a controversial US system will be especially difficult if responsibility for the INF Treaty’s disintegration shifts from Moscow to Washington.
Grounds for suspension? The INF Treaty contains no mechanism for suspension, but the US defense act’s language echoes Russia’s “suspension” of its implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in 2007. President Vladimir Putin’s decision at that time puzzled security experts, because the agreement did not include any provision for suspension, and Moscow’s unconventional process did not comport with the treaty’s procedure for withdrawal. Russia continued to meet as part of the treaty’s governing body until 2015, when it ceased its participation and confirmed that the treaty would remain on hiatus indefinitely. The first tangible effects of the suspension were straightforward: The Russian government stopped participating in reciprocal data exchanges and inspections.
The form that a US suspension of the INF Treaty would take, however, is an open question; the provisions of the treaty that are analogous to the inspections and data exchanges in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty expired in 2001. In accordance with Congress’s 2018 directive, the Defense Department is researching a missile system that would have a range prohibited by the INF Treaty. The legislative branch’s expression of support for unilateral suspension might be an early endorsement of flight testing, production, and deployment of that system. Any of these actions would directly violate the treaty, and Russia would view them as provocations.
Winning the public-relations battle. If the risk of remaining compliant with the INF Treaty were truly greater than the risk posed by departure, members of Congress could pressure the White House to leave the agreement legally. Article XV of the treaty states that if either party finds that its “supreme interests” are “jeopardized” by remaining in the treaty, they can withdraw by giving six months’ notice and submitting a statement explaining the “extraordinary events” that led to withdrawal. This approach would provide an opportunity for public debate on the merits and drawbacks of abrogating the treaty, and a US statement explaining its withdrawal would offer both Russia and US allies more context for the decision. However, formally withdrawing from the treaty would not justify building a new and expensive missile system. Washington would probably still struggle to manage the public-relations challenges of the decision with allies, and withdrawal would preclude progress on other bilateral arms control priorities like extending New START.
The path that Congress has taken reduces the chances that the INF Treaty will be salvaged, and it puts the transatlantic alliance at risk in ways that may ultimately advantage Russian interests in Europe. The chances that Russia will return to compliance with the treaty are low, and US policy today should aim to protect allied interests in a world without the INF Treaty. Developing new weapons will not deny Russia the benefit it perceives from deploying its own intermediate-range missiles, but reinforcing and demonstrating the cohesion of the transatlantic alliance might help to accomplish that.
Public opinion will play an important role in consolidating the support of allied governments. While some information is necessarily restricted, the United States government should be as transparent as possible with allies about the nature and extent of Russia’s treaty violation. The United States should also work with media organizations in allied countries to develop accurate and concise explanations to help the general public understand this issue. Developing a coordinated response to Russia’s treaty violation and the potential longer-term decline of the INF Treaty doesn’t require new weapons, but it does require that NATO governments have the domestic political support to address Russia’s INF deployments in Europe.