On October 20, US President Donald Trump announced that he intends to withdraw the United States from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Moscow. This means the 31-year-old landmark nuclear weapons agreement will soon be thrown into the dustbin of history like two other major deals aiming to keep nuclear powers from annihilating life on Earth: the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that was meant to keep Russia and the US from creating missile defences (the US pulled out in 2002); and the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was meant to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons (the US pulled out in May this year).
A major turning point in the Cold War
The 1987 treaty, signed by the then-US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibited Washington and Moscow from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500km. The missiles banned through this agreement were capable of destroying enemy targets and, collaterally, tens of millions of civilians, in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.
The INF treaty was the agreement that broke the deadlock of the Cold War arms race, from which all future progress followed. It not only prohibited an entire class of deadly nuclear weapons but also brought about in-depth verification protocols that ensured compliance. In practice, this agreement eliminated the once very real possibility of Europe becoming ground-zero of an unprecedented nuclear show-down.
President Trump says he decided to quit the landmark agreement because he believes Russia is already violating it. He also says China, which possesses its own short and intermediate range land-based nuclear weapons, should also be party to such an agreement limiting the nuclear capabilities of Russia and the US.
Did Russia really violate the deal?
The US believes Russia’s land-based, nuclear-capable Novator 9M729 missile system, dubbed SSC-X-8 by NATO, is a violation of the 1987 deal because it has a range of over 500km – the threshold set by the INF treaty. The Russians, on the other hand, say that their new missile system has a much shorter range, well beneath what is allowed under the INF treaty. But, most crucially, Moscow does not offer any evidence to prove this. So far, neither the US nor NATO seems to be satisfied with Moscow’s denial. Moreover, even if the Russians are telling the truth, and their new missiles are technically legal, it can easily be argued that the creation of this missile system clearly breaches the spirit of the agreement and gives Washington reason to be very concerned.
However, Russia’s alleged violation does not fully legitimise Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal. Under the 1987 treaty, the verification procedures to ensure compliance were extensive. Although these have been used in this instance, they had not yet been exhausted. The Trump administration could keep using these and additional diplomatic means to push Russia into complying with the conditions of the treaty. But now that it chose to abandon the deal, it has no way of pressuring the Russians into compliance.
Moreover, for their part, Russians say it was the US and not them that first violated the treaty, by deploying missile systems across Europe and triggering an escalation.
Indeed, the first time US really voiced its concerns about Russia’s possible violations was in 2014, but a year earlier, it had announced its decision to deploy anti-ballistic missile defences in Europe. These missile defences may have made Americans feel safer, but they simultaneously made Russians feel vulnerable. To remove that vulnerability, Russia likely felt the need to develop ways to destroy that missile shield if required, and the intermediate range nuclear missiles it is now accused of possessing appear to be ideal for that job.
Regardless of who should be blamed for the demise of the INF treaty, it is clear that Russian-American relations entered a new phase with President Trump’s October 20 announcement.
Relations between the two countries have already been going downhill since Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine. Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and its alleged attempt to assassinate a former spy in Britain using a chemical weapon also did not help the situation.
From here, three things are likely to happen:
Firstly, the ongoing arms race between Russia and the US is likely to pick up pace. Both Russian and American weapons designers are likely already racing to invent new nuclear weapons to help their nations gain the utmost advantage from the lifting of restrictions.
Second, once the next generation of short or intermediate land-based nuclear weapons is developed, or modified from existing sea or air-based platforms, the push will be to redeploy them back around Europe. Moscow, already busy expanding its stockpiles and performing the largest military games in decades, will relish the chance to openly move such weapons back to its Western borders. Once Russian missiles are in place, the Americans and the Europeans will be forced to respond in kind and deploy short or intermediate-range nuclear weapons in their own backyards and point them eastward. This will cause a repeat of the tense situation witnessed in the 1980’s, in which European communities were made into targets in a game of dare between the US and the Soviet Union.
Finally, there will likely be murmurings about the value of keeping the supplementary conventional arms and confidence-building agreements that supported the 1987 treaty and made Europe safe by effective arms reduction, transparency and compliance measures. The merit of still adhering to the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia, which set numerical limits on the number of long-range missiles and launch platforms, may also be questioned. President Trump already appears sceptical of this 2010 treaty, likely because it was drafted under the guidance of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
Turning this situation around and avoiding a new, intense arms race between Russia and the US will be very difficult.
Can Trump pull of a new deal that includes China?
President Trump appears to be planning to solve this problem and avoid a dangerous arms race by signing a new, better deal with Russia that would also include China.
However, it is unlikely that he will manage to make China sign a deal on short and intermediate land-based nuclear weapons, especially at a time when the two countries are in the middle of a raging trade war, the North Korea negotiations hang in the balance and dangerous disputes in the South China Sea are bubbling.
To convince the Russians to sign a deal similar to, never mind better than, the 1987 deal is not going to be any easier. The Russians would only come to the table if the Trump administration understands their reasons for creating the Novator 9M729 missile system and agrees to negotiate a way forward that would make both parties feel safe.
To even begin this journey, and sign a deal with both China and Russia that could rival the landmark 1987 treaty, Trump will need unprecedented levels of trust and confidence, both of which are currently in very short supply.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.