What’s behind Trump’s decision to ditch a decades-old arms control treaty?
President Donald Trump said Saturday that he intends to withdraw the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russia’s violations of the treaty and China’s missile arsenal as reasons for ditching the accord.
“Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One to leave Nevada following a campaign rally. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement. Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement.”
However, some analysts see the Trump administration’s aversion to international agreements and the views of national security adviser John Bolton a driving force behind the decision.
The signing of the treaty in 1987 was seen as a watershed moment during the end days of the Cold War, helping to eliminate thousands of land-based missiles with ranges between approximately 300 and 3,400 miles.
Here’s a look at the various factors involved as well as some of the potential fallout.
The US has long accused Russia of violating the agreement via its deployment of a treaty violating cruise missile. US and NATO officials have long criticized Russia for its actions.
Withdrawing from the treaty will allow the US to develop a similar missile and many analysts worry a US withdrawal could trigger an arms race. But some argue that a US withdrawal will actually help Russia as they would be able to blame the US for the treaty’s demise.
“Russian officials probably are celebrating the news,” Steven Pifer, a former State Department official and arms control expert at the Brookings Institution wrote Friday.
“The United States will get the blame for killing the treaty,” Pifer wrote, adding that “US evidence of the Russian violation is highly classified, so the public debate will devolve into an exchange of charges, counter-charges, and denials.”
Russia’s development of its cruise missile is also relatively much more advanced, meaning Moscow could begin deploying it much more widely should the treaty be terminated.
“Moscow will be free to deploy the 9M729 cruise missile, and an intermediate-range ballistic missile if it wants, without any restraint,” Pifer added while noting that “the United States currently has no missile that it could quickly deploy to match the Russians.”
While the US Defense Department has begun a treaty compliant research and development program for an intermediate range missile, the actual fielding of such a missile would take some time.
Former State Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, a CNN military and diplomatic analyst, also agreed that the decision provided Moscow with some benefits.
“It hands Putin a victory and allows him to accelerate the development of this capability,” Kirby said, adding, “he will now be able to violate it much more blatantly.”
China’s military has undergone a dramatic modernization effort since 1987, investing billions of dollars in acquiring new weapons.
One area where China has invested heavily is the development of missiles. Senior US military leaders have said that, were China party to the INF treaty, some 95% of its approximately 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles would be in violation.
Critics of the treaty, including Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have cited China as a reason the US should consider leaving it.
“The Chinese are stockpiling missiles because they’re not bound by it at all. I’ve long called for the U.S. to consider whether this treaty still serves our national interest,” Cotton said in a statement.
Kirby said that while China’s missile arsenal is a “legitimate concern,” he said the US could help counter it by relying on its advantages in sea-based cruise missiles, which are ungoverned by the INF treaty.
Is Bolton behind this?
Some analysts pointed to an op-ed written by Bolton in 2011 before Russia’s violations of the treaty were made public. In the editorial, he wrote that the US should leave the treaty, citing Iran’s missile programs as the reason.
While Bolton has said that editorials he has written do not necessarily represent the policies he will pursue in office, since joining the administration, he has routinely criticized what he sees as infringements on US sovereignty.
“I think Bolton is very much behind this decision, it very much suits his dislike of multilateral arrangements and agreements, particularly those that in his view, constrain US freedom of action,” Kirby said.
“He is beginning to find his footing on the National Security Council and putting his stamp on this,” he said.
Kirby added that it was interesting that neither the State Department nor the Pentagon had issued any statements on the US withdrawal from the treaty following Trump’s announcement on Saturday.
Bolton is expected to discuss the treaty with Russian officials on his trip to Moscow next week.
While Sen. Cotton signaled support, the move has other members of Congress voicing their opposition.
“There is no doubt that Russia is responsible for the degradation of the INF treaty. However, withdrawing from this treaty without a comprehensive strategy for addressing its underlying strategic implications and without consulting Congress or our allies threatens long-term United States’ national security interests,” Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
And Republican Sen. Bob Corker told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that he thought Trump’s announcement may be an effort aimed at bringing Russia back into compliance, akin to how the administration threatened to leave NAFTA before renegotiating a new trade agreement expected to be signed later this year.
“Maybe this is just a move to say, look, if we don’t — if you don’t straighten up, we’re moving out of this,” Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said. “I hope that’s the case. I hope we’re going to be able to figure out a way to stay within the treaty.”
While NATO has criticized Russia’s “plausible” violations of the treaty,” it has also called the INF agreement “crucial” to transatlantic security.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Trump’s decision, calling it “regrettable,” adding, “it poses difficult questions for us and Europe.”
Many European officials recall the “Euro-missile Crisis” of the 1980s, when Soviet deployments of SS-20 missiles in Warsaw Pact countries caused political rifts in Europe over whether to support US counter-deployments of Pershing missiles.
Should the US develop and seek to field a intermediate range land based missile to counter the Russian deployment, the US would need the support of European allies, something that is not necessarily guaranteed.
Iran and North Korea
Kirby said the decision to leave the treaty would likely “diminish our credibility at the negotiating table” with regards to efforts aimed at reducing North Korea and Iran’s missile stockpiles.