Is the US plan to withdraw from INF treaty ill-advised?

C. Uday Bhaskar
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The INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty signed on December 8, 1987 in Washington by then US President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev was hailed as a landmark arms control agreement.

It paved the way for stepping back from global nuclear Armageddon and enabled the subsequent peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union – which soon became “former” and consigned to history books. This treaty is to be scrapped by the Trump led US administration.


The American withdrawal from the INFT (INF Treaty) is expected to be announced this week by the US National Security Adviser John Bolton when he visits Moscow. It may be recalled that Mr. Bolton has been a staunch critic of the INFT in particular and arms control agreements in general.

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He has been a visible critic of the Obama-led Iran nuclear deal and had long recommended a “muscular” approach to North Korea over its WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and to that extent this development is not a surprise.

The INFT in essence is a bi-lateral treaty arrived at during the height of the Cold War by the US and the USSR, when both sides were amassing nuclear weapons and forbade either side from deploying land-based intermediate range (500 to 5500 km) nuclear tipped missiles.

More sagacious leadership would suggest that the US and Russia review and improve current INFT to redress bilateral anxieties, as also encourage compliance by other members of the uneasy nuclear cluster

C. Uday Bhaskar

Strategic step

This was a tentative but huge strategic step towards arms reduction and in the first instance, it ensured the safety of Europe, which till then was the most likely theatre for thee exchange of nuclear weapons.

It was an anomalous situation that prevailed at the time, when to ensure each other’s “security”, the US and Soviet military commanders were planning for an exigency that would have reduced Germany and large parts of central Europe to atomic rubble. Millions of citizens would have perished in a manner more apocalyptic than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The US decision to withdraw from the INFT follows an earlier decision taken by the Bush administration in 2002 when Washington unilaterally pulled out of the bi-lateral ABM (anti-ballistic missile) Treaty and this allowed Washington to pursue missile defense in a more robust manner.

At the time there was considerable global anxiety about improving defensive measures against missiles as an offensive weapon and the post 9/11 “insecurity” ambiance heightened the ‘rogue’ element after the enormity of the Twin Tower attack.

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In the current instance, the US has charged Moscow with violation of the INFT. It is alleged by Washington that Russia is acquiring a new medium-range missile called the Novator 9M729 (what NATO refers to as SSC-8) and that this would place American allies in Europe under threat.

Concurrently there is anxiety in the Bolton camp that the INFT as it is currently framed is purely bi-lateral and that it does not prohibit countries like China and India from acquiring such a capability – thereby placing the US at a disadvantage.

While these may be factually correct, the policy inference that American security is better ensured and protected in the long term by withdrawing from the INF Treaty is flawed on two counts.

As President Gorbachev had then asserted, given the techno-strategic characteristics of WMD, global security in the late 20th century had become “indivisible”; and the only reasonably assured path to a modicum of credible security was by strengthening the cooperative approach, wherein verifiable arms reduction was a central pillar. The conclusion of the INFT in December 1987 was a prime example of such cooperation.

End of Cold War

By end 1991, when the Cold War ended – without a shot being fired or a missile launched – the success of the INF was evident. Almost 2700 nuclear tipped medium range missiles had been dismantled in a verifiable manner and both Europe and the US had become a tad safer.
Fast forward to 2018. If the US needs to credibly defend itself from a Russian or Chinese threat posed by a missile that comes under the INF category – objective cost-benefit analysis would recommend improving the existing treaty provisions and holding Moscow’s feet to the fire for transgression.

Paradoxically Europe which is directly affected by the INF missiles (not the mainland of the US) has not reacted to Moscow’s opaque missile violations in the same manner. Germany has actually urged the US to review its decision for the adverse impact this would have on European security and the very fragile global nuclear disarmament effort. The latter objective is as desirable as it is tenuous in the wake of the Trump triggered turbulence.

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Medium range missiles – particularly the cruise variant with a nuclear warhead are inherently de-stabilizing and it is imperative that there be global consensus on the subject. The number of nations that have either acquired this capability or plan to do so is increasing and now includes the nuclear nine – that is the first five (US, Russia, UK, France and China); the second generation (India and Pakistan); and the gray nuclear powers, Israel and North Korea.

More sagacious leadership would suggest that the US and Russia review and improve the current INFT to redress bi-lateral anxieties, as also encourage compliance by the other members of the uneasy global nuclear cluster.

Policy petulance in matters nuclear couched in questionable certitude augurs ill for global stability. Will John Bolton find a persuasive interlocutor in Moscow – one who can interpret the INF Treaty as a larger global umbrella and not the brittle bi-lateral that it is being made out to be? Or is this part of the inflexible Trump determination to kill all Obama related policies?
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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