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Tearing up a nuclear arms treaty with Russia would be catastrophic

Tearing up a nuclear arms treaty with Russia would be catastrophic
A missile is launched during a military training exercise near St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2017. (Russia Defense Ministry)

President Trump has made a habit of repudiating international agreements negotiated by Barack Obama, his Democratic predecessor. Now he seems to be on the verge of withdrawing the United States from a landmark arms control agreement signed more than 30 years ago by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

Trump’s stated reason for abrogating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — that Russia is violating its terms — seems superficially plausible. But withdrawal would still be a catastrophic mistake.

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The treaty, concluded between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, ended an arms race in Europe that began in the late 1970s when Moscow deployed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles capable of delivering multiple nuclear warheads, and NATO responded with a plan to deploy U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Eventually the two superpowers agreed to a treaty banning all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (310 to 3,420 miles).

“We can only hope that this history-making agreement will not be an end in itself,” President Reagan said at the time, “but the beginning of a working relationship.”

And indeed, the INF treaty was part of a larger disarmament dialogue between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and later the Russian Federation) that also included talks to limit long-range nuclear weapons. Current strategic stockpiles and delivery systems are limited by the 2010 New START treaty, which expires in February 2021 unless the two nations agree to extend it for up to five years.

Trump has been telegraphing in recent days that the U.S. would be abandoning the INF treaty. On Saturday he said: “Russia has violated the agreement. They have been violating it for many years. And we’re not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we’re not allowed to.”

The president apparently was referring to allegations that the Russians have developed a land-based cruise missile that exceeds the range specified in the treaty, an allegation the Russians deny. The Obama administration also alleged that Russia breached the treaty’s terms, and in 2016 convened a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, a body established by the treaty to address compliance concerns. But rather than withdraw from the treaty, the Obama administration adopted a policy of trying to press the Russia back into compliance.

Initially, the Trump administration took the same position. In 2017, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon said that the U.S. was “making every effort to preserve the INF treaty in the face of Russian violations,” although he warned that “continuation of a situation in which the United States remains in compliance while Russia violates the agreement is unacceptable to us.”

That may sound reasonable. But arms-control experts point out that abrogating the treaty over one alleged violation by Russia would free Moscow to disregard all constraints imposed by the agreement. And that wouldn’t be the only adverse consequence.

U.S. renunciation of the INF treaty also would undermine prospects for extending the New START treaty. Reacting to Trump’s comments about leaving the INF treaty, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said “I hope we’re not moving down the path to undo much of the nuclear arms control treaties that we have put in place.”

A U.S. repudiation of the INF treaty also would also further damage relations with America’s closest European allies already dismayed by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord. On Monday a spokeswoman for the European Union, while calling on Russia to address concerns about its compliance, said: “We also expect the U.S. to consider the consequences of its possible withdrawal from the INF on its own security, on the security of its allies and of the whole world. The world doesn’t need a new arms race.”

In addition to complaining about Russian violations, Trump has pointed out that China is not bound by the INF treaty. “If Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it, and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable,” he said. Some arms-control experts have spoken about “globalizing” the INF treaty to add China and other Asian nations. But the idea that the U.S. needs to be freed from the treaty’s restrictions to deter China isn’t serious given this country’s other military assets not constrained by the agreement.

On too many occasions this administration has acted impulsively on the world stage and scrambled to contain the damage later. Trashing the INF treaty would be another such blunder. The president should pull back from the precipice.

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