Arms Control in Crisis

The Trump administration has lately declared the suspension of the US obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia that was built over decades with consistent efforts and hard-work by multiple US administrations. By August this year, the US will revoke the treaty if Russia fails to get back to compliance. Clearly, the treaty is dead as expectations for Russia getting back to compliance are fairly dim considering the evolving security trends at the regional and global level.

Initiated in 1987, bilaterally the most comprehensive arrangement with far-reaching impact led to restraining both the US and Russia from developing nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Moreover, the two states agreed to pursue verifiable removal of 2,692 missiles deployed in Europe and the withdrawal of thousands of tactical nuclear weapons from forward-deployed locations. The treaty yielded result-oriented impact by building trust and strategic stability between the two states thereby becoming a pillar of European security architecture and setting normative trends globally in order to control horizontal and vertical proliferation.

The broader arms control culture will be adversely affected in the wake of the demise of the INF treaty. There is a greater risk of a new intermediate-range, ground-based missile arms race between the US and Russia, in Europe and the broader Asia-pacific. Death of the treaty will also have a destabilizing impact on the broader non-proliferation regime thereby increasing proliferation trends and decreasing hope for global nuclear disarmament.

Reasons for the Demise of the Treaty

President Trump follows a policy of isolationism. His unilateral withdrawals from a number of other arrangements such as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are the cases in point. His isolationist policy has created division and dissatisfaction within its alliance systems such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and EU partners, and weakened its alliance cohesion in Asia. His foreign policy is largely destructive and destabilizing. He lacks political skill, will and spirit to initiate constructive diplomatic dialogue with Russia and China in order to fix the INF treaty instead of dismantling it.

Trump’s decision for the suspension of the treaty came out in the backdrop of the claim that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the Novator 9M729, with range which violates the INF Treaty and challenges the Euro-Atlantic security. Russia, in turn, denied these charges and blamed the US for producing the Mk-41 Vertical Launching System (which is capable of holding a variety of missiles including cruise missiles) for missile interceptors at the Aegis Ashore facility in Romania and Poland. The Mk-41 launcher can be used to fire defensive (surface to air) as well as offensive (surface to surface) missiles by upgrading software, loading different missiles, and feeding different targeting data. For Russia, the Mk-41 class multi-purpose launcher can eventually lead to the violation of the INF treaty. Arguably, yet the two states hold the diplomatic potential to address these bilateral differences for the interest of broader strategic stability but seemingly there is no political will.

The US security competition with China is a major driving factor that has encouraged the US to exit from the treaty. It goes without saying that the US departure is stirred by China’s mounting challenge to US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. China is not a party to this treaty, therefore, the real concerns are attached to China’s growing influence, its investment in ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles, and future military modernization plans. Thus the US believes that the INF treaty prohibits it from acquiring and fielding more missiles and weapon systems in Asia.

Impact on US-Russia arms control arrangements

The US is yet to devise any strategy to prohibit Russia from building and fielding more intermediate-range missiles in the wake of the demise of the INF Treaty. The U.S. decision to withdraw from the treaty will not convince Russia to get back to compliance. Instead, it may unleash a dangerous missile race between the two states. It will also adversely impact the extension of the New START treaty that was signed by President Obama with an expiry deadline in 2021. The New START treaty has replaced the START I treaty of 1991 and superseded the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) of 2002.

The New START limits the two sides’ long-range missiles and bombers and caps the warheads they carry to no more than 1,550 each. Unfortunately, voices within the circle of Trump administration are not in favor of the extension of the New START treaty. Notably, the demise of the New START will leave the two states with no legally-binding verification regime on restraining and regulating their largest nuclear stockpiles.  The world will fall back into an era of costly arms race like that of pre-1972 (before signing the SALT I agreement). Russia, in this case, has no restrictions and it can march ahead swiftly with the development and fielding of short and medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles. A renewed arms race between the US and Russia to develop and field intermediate-range missiles systems will increase instability not only in Europe but also in the Asia-pacific.

The coming arms race in Europe

The US withdrawal will lead to dissatisfaction, division and mistrust with its EU partners. This in turn inevitably, could reduce the US role as a leader in regulating the global nuclear order, thereby encouraging more states to act on their own. Russia’s arms build-up and fielding of missile systems will demand a strong NATO response, including renewed nuclear deployments by the EU states. So, the US will be compelled to install more intermediate-range missiles in Europe that in turn would destabilize the broader European region. Poland, the Baltic states, and other countries in this part of Europe are concerned about the Russian role to weaken the NATO.

Destabilizing trends in Asia

The demise of the treaty will lead to an arms race between the US and China in the Asia-pacific. China has been developing missile-delivery systems for some time. Although China’s nuclear stockpile is quite moderate which is below 300, compared to approximately 7,000 and 6,500 Russian and US warheads, respectively. The downfall of the INF Treaty and the deployment of China-specific missiles by the US could compel China to introduce response-measures – such as rapidly expanding its warhead numbers and missile-delivery systems to safeguard its own security interests in the region.

North Korea has been developing long-range ballistic missiles. The US diplomatic effort to denuclearize North Korea is bound to fail. As a result, Pyongyang will be compelled to further modernize its missile systems. The US allies such a South Korea and Japan along with its arch-rival Iran may reconsider the nuclear option in order to enhance their military power to gain a more assertive strategic role in Asia and the Middle East respectably.

Finally, the US-China arms race and India’s hedge against China may lead to creating a vicious cycle of security and power competition between India and Pakistan, as there is no arms control arrangement between them. Pakistan did propose India a nuclear restraint regime (NRR) in 1999 but India categorically refused to accept. Being that said, scholarly and academic discussion should be undertaken to encourage the two states to follow the lead, drawing lessons from the Cold War arms control regimes. But the disappearance of the INF treaty will certainly create security dilemma resulting in a spiral of action-reaction arms build-up across the region and globe.

The demise of the INF treaty will fuel further arms race, driving other countries to acquire more weapons, thereby increasing the risks of accidental war, miscalculation and strategic instability. It is imperative that the US and Russia open up avenues for cooperation, fix the INF treaty instead of dismantling it. The US and Russia should initiate discussions on preserving the New START while convincing others to follow the lead.

In Asia, it is important that the US and China open a constructive dialogue in order to strike a separate bilateral arms control mechanism and accommodating each other to avoid miscalculation and confrontation while promoting shared economic, political, and security goals in Asia. However, the cost for China to join the existing INF treaty seems high at this stage, therefore, new momentum needs to be built on a bilateral arrangement. India and Pakistan must keep their arsenals within the parameters of credible minimum deterrence to ensure security while safeguarding not challenging regional stability. The two states should bring the NRR into discussion for the institutionalization of an early arms control arrangement to achieve regional stability and secure peace for the betterment of the people of this region.

Image; U.S. Navy photo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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