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RIP INF: The End of a Landmark Treaty

Written by Steven Pifer

President Donald Trump announced at a campaign rally on October 20 that the United States would withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. During his October 22–23 visit to Moscow, National Security Advisor John Bolton confirmed that the president intended to withdraw from the treaty.

Keeping the treaty in place presumably would require that Trump change his mind, which at a minimum would require that the Kremlin agree to take corrective action to come back into compliance. That’s not going to happen.

The treaty was already on life support. Trump is pulling the plug, and the United States will exit the agreement six months after it gives formal notification. Russia bears primary responsibility for the treaty’s demise, but both Europe and the United States could have done more to try to save it.

Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the mid-1970s gave rise to concern in Europe about a gap between U.S. and Soviet INF capabilities. In 1979, NATO adopted the “dual-track” decision: the Alliance agreed to deploy U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Europe while the United States sought to negotiate limits on such missiles with the Soviets.

Early rounds of the INF negotiations yielded little progress. The Soviets walked out in 1983 after the first U.S. missiles arrived in Britain and West Germany. The talks resumed in 1985. This time, they produced agreement. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in December 1987.

The INF Treaty banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It entered into force in summer 1988. Three years later, the United States and Soviet Union had destroyed almost 2,700 missiles as well as their launchers, all under the most intrusive verification measures ever agreed, including on-site inspections. It was rightly called a landmark agreement.

Moscow appeared satisfied with the treaty’s performance up until the early 2000s. Senior Russian officials then began to express concern that, while the United States and Russia could not have intermediate-range missiles, third countries could. (The exceptions were Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which, like Russia, remained party to the INF Treaty after the Soviet Union’s collapse.)

Read more at The National Interest

About the author

Steven Pifer

Steven Pifer is senior fellow and director of the Arms Control Initiative at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.