The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was crafted in 1987 by then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with both nations agreeing to eliminate all of their ground-launched nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 500km and 5,500km (310 miles to 3,420 miles).
But both sides have accused the other of violating the treaty in recent years. The US, under former President Barack Obama, said in 2014 that Russia tested cruise missiles which violated the INF Treaty since 2008.
For its part, Russia says the US violates the INF Treaty by deploying Mark 41 Vertical Launching System (MK-41) in Romania and Poland.
The MK-41 launchers are currently used for defensive purposes, but Moscow alleges they can be repurposed to fire offensive missiles.
On October 20, US President Donald Trump escalated the war of words by announcing intentions to withdraw from the 31-year-old treaty with Moscow, a move analysts said would greatly effect EU security.
While both sides allege violations, ending the treaty now would be “unwise” and beneficial for Russia, according to Steven Pifer, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who focuses on arms control, the US and Europe.
“After the end of the INF Treaty, Russia will be free to deploy without constraint land-based intermediate-range missiles to target Europe [and Asia as well].”
The US does not have counterparts for these missiles,” Pifer said, “and it is unlikely that NATO could reach consensus on deploying US missiles in Europe if they existed”.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that Russia was to blame for the treaty becoming “untenable”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia would respond in kind if the US withdraws.
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a yearly report that “determines the role of nuclear weapons” in US security policy, cites concerns over “negative trends in the security environment”, shared by its EU allies, as a reason for a more aggressive nuclear policy in Europe.
These concerns are evident “in Europe, where there are understandable allied fears of Russia’s nuclear and non-nuclear threats”, the NPR (PDF) said.
Maxwell Downman, nuclear policy analyst for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), a London-based thinktank that promotes nuclear disarmament, agreed with Pfier.
Downman said there was concern, especially after Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, but EU governments have similarly expressed caution about the Trump administration.
Among NATO members, there is both “worry about Russia … and worry about Trump being trigger happy”, Downman said.
But the pressure of the end of the INF Treaty falls squarely on Europe, Downman explained.
“This is the sort of action where the US makes the decision, and all the risks and consequences are on Europe,” Downman said.
Intermediate range missiles, “by definition, are targeted on EU capitals.”
This could place extra stress on already-strained relations between the US and the Trump administration’s protectionist policies.
The US’ tentative withdrawal from the INF Treaty comes at a time when far-right populism – a political movement Russia has supported, is making gains in national elections across Europe.
Far-right governments in Hungary and Italy – both members of the EU and NATO – have recently expressed a desire to end sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea in order to reap economic benefits.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the INF would “put the US directly at odds with its EU allies”, just like the Iran deal, Downman said.
While Europe is concerned about its own safety, both the US and Russia have expressed concern over Chinese missile proliferation in Asia, which is not limited by the INF Treaty.
Russia shares a 4,209km (2615.351 mile) border with China and the US maintains military bases in ally countries like South Korea and Japan.
While world focus is on Russia-US relations and the INF Treaty, the “fact that China is not part of the treaty is the primary problem for the US”, Nathan Levine, a fellow on US-China Relations at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.
The deal is simply unattractive to Trump, “given that China is not constrained and Russia isn’t following the rules, and that’s enough for him to want out”, Levine continued.
An end to the INF Treaty could see the US deploying weapons to its allies in Asia to contain Chinese influence.
While it would be better if South Korea and Japan deployed their own weapons, Levine said the US “has a much larger defence budget to work with than either country [and could sell] missiles to its allies, like it currently sells them the F-35 [fighter jet].”
A dangerous game
But using the INF Treaty as leverage to contain China and Russia’s intermediate missile arsenal could have dangerous effects for the future of arms control.
Observers have aired concerns that if the INF Treaty falls, relations between Russia and the US would not allow for the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed in 2010, which limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the US and Russia to 1,550.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said on October 22 the administration is “considering its position” on the treaty.
A failure to renew New START, which expires in 2021, “would be a bad outcome, but one that doesn’t necessarily have to come to pass,” Levine said. “I also honestly don’t think President Trump is thinking that far ahead.”
But Downman, the nuclear policy analyst for BASIC, said this is too dangerous of an outcome not to consider.
Rather than scrapping treaties, Downman said the Trump administration should explore further sanctions on Russian weapons they believe are violating the INF Treaty and “exhaust its diplomatic and military options within the treaty.”
Nuclear policy is no place to practise brinkmanship, Downman said.
“What Trump is doing isn’t normal …This is a game where you risk the annihilation of the entire world.”