The end of an era? The INF Treaty, New START, and the future of strategic stability

Components of SSC-8/9M729 cruise missile system are on display during a news briefing, organized by Russian defence and foreign ministries, at Patriot Expocentre near Moscow, Russia January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov - RC1EAAFF9260

On February 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States was suspending its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and notified Russia and the other treaty parties that the United States would be withdrawing from the treaty in six months, pursuant to Article XV of the treaty. Pompeo said: “Russia remains in material breach of its treaty obligations not to produce, possess, or flight-test a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile system with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.” The following day in response to the U.S. announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia was also suspending its obligations under the treaty. Unless something dramatic occurs, it appears that the INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev, will likely come to an end this summer.

While the end of the INF Treaty is certainly unfortunate, it is a symptom of a much larger problem: the collapse of the existing U.S.-Russia strategic stability framework. The key question now is whether the Trump administration can effectively manage the demise of the INF Treaty in a way that 1) maintains the cohesion of U.S. alliances; 2) upholds a level of strategic stability with Russia in the near- to mid-term; and 3) facilities the transition to a new framework for strategic stability that incorporates new actors (e.g., China) and emerging technologies (e.g., space and cyber). Based on its handling of the issue to date, the jury is still out as to whether the Trump administration can successfully accomplish these goals.

These, among other topics, were the subject of a recent in-depth discussion among a number of us at Brookings, and will be a key topic of discussion at the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC), scheduled to take place February 15-17 in Munich, Germany. As the chairman of the MSC Wolfgang Ischinger recently stated: “When looking at the current state of international affairs, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the world is not just witnessing a series of smaller and bigger crises, but that there is a more fundamental problem. Indeed, we seem to be experiencing a reshuffling of core pieces of the international order.” The future of arms control and strategic stability are at the center of this global reshuffling.

The long, slow death of the INF Treaty

Russia has long expressed concerns about the strategic relevance of the INF Treaty. Indeed, in 2004 and 2005, Russia proposed the United States and Russia jointly withdraw from the treaty, arguing that it no longer reflected the current security situation in Eurasia. In particular, it noted the proliferation of medium- and intermediate-range missiles by states like China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Iran.

While the Bush administration declined to take Russia up on the offer, it was probably during this general timeframe that Russia decided to embark on the covert development of the new treaty-prohibited cruise missile. In the July 2014 U.S. Department of State’s Arms Control Compliance Report, the Obama administration declared:

The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.

Prior to the public designation of Russian noncompliance in 2014, the United States had engaged Russia diplomatically on the issue beginning in May 2013 in an attempt to convince Russia to return to compliance. None of these diplomatic efforts—which have taken place over five years and under both the Obama and Trump administrations—made any progress in resolving the issue. Therefore, Trump administration’s decision to exit the treaty is certainly understandable. From my perspective, the key question was not whether we could have “saved” the INF Treaty, a highly doubtful proposition, but whether the Trump administration handled the diplomacy surrounding the exit from the treaty effectively.

If the Trump administration believed it was necessary for the United States to exit the treaty, it needed to do it in a way that: 1) placed the blame for killing the INF Treaty squarely on Russia; and 2) kept U.S. allies united. Unfortunately, the administration’s initial announcement of the decision failed on both counts. In fact, President Trump announced the decision on the sidelines of a campaign rally, without any prior consultations with U.S. allies. That represented clear diplomatic malpractice. By making the initial announcement the way it did, the Trump administration made the issue about the United States, instead of Russia’s violation, where the blame clearly belongs.

That said, the administration seems to have since recognized its mistake of failing to consult adequately with allies in late 2018, and worked to ensure NATO unity in advance of Secretary Pompeo’s announcement this month. Indeed, in the February 1 statement, NATO allies noted their full support of the U.S. decision to provide six-month written notice to treaty parties of its withdrawal under Article XV.

We need to acknowledge that the INF Treaty’s demise is a direct result of the declining fortunes of the U.S.-Russia strategic stability regime.

We need to acknowledge that the INF Treaty’s demise is a direct result of the declining fortunes of the U.S.-Russia strategic stability regime and the inability of that regime to respond effectively to the evolving security environment. For example, Russia and other critics of the treaty have a valid point when they argue that while the INF Treaty constrains Russian and U.S. missile capabilities, it does nothing to limit Chinese, North Korean, and Iranian systems. To be effective, any new strategic stability framework would need to incorporate new actors like China, and new technologies like cyber and outer space. It also needs to be flexible enough to address the changes in the security environment. But it will take time to transition to a new framework. That’s where the extension of the New START Treaty comes in.

The linchpin: New START extension

There are a number of strong reasons why the United States should seek to extend New START, signed in 2010 by Presidents Obama and Medvedev. From a military perspective, it will assist the United States with maintaining stable deterrence. Indeed, as General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, stated during congressional testimony in March 2017: “I’ve stated for the record in the past, and I’ll state again, that I’m a big supporter [of the treaty]. … When it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, that bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.” The treaty also gives the United States important information about Russian strategic nuclear forces that it wouldn’t necessarily have access to without it. Furthermore, according to the State Department’s annual report on New START implementation and unlike the INF Treaty, Russia is in full compliance with its obligations under New START.

There are also solid political reasons favoring extension of New START. As I have written elsewhere, had it not been for New START, there are questions of whether it would have been possible to obtain support from some Democratic members of Congress for the strategic modernization program. However, that support is now beginning to fray. For example, Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has questioned the need for key elements of the strategic modernization program. In addition, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted at a September 18, 2018 hearing on U.S.-Russia strategic arms control:

I also want to remind the administration that bipartisan support for nuclear modernization is tied to maintaining an arms control process that controls and seeks to reduce Russian nuclear forces, which inevitably means promoting militarily- and fiscally-responsible policies on ourselves. We are not interested in writing blank checks for a nuclear arms race with Russia. And we don’t want to step off our current path of stability to wander again down an uncertain road filled with potentially dire consequences.

Extending New START could also help reassure critics that the Trump administration is not intrinsically hostile towards arms control. Given the serious messaging problem is has, the Trump administration would also be wise to identify other arms control and nonproliferation agreements that it can support. One relatively easy thing it could do would be to urge the U.S. Senate to provide its advice and consent to Protocol to the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia and Protocols I and II to the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty.

Senior Trump administration officials, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, have mentioned the idea of negotiating a new treaty to replace New START, arguing the treaty does not effectively address Russia’s non-strategic nuclear forces or new types of systems like hypersonic glide vehicles and intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo. This is a fair point. However, negotiating a new agreement over the remaining two years of the Trump administration’s current term in office is probably not a viable option for a variety of reasons. First, if new negotiation were to begin, Russia would almost certainly insist on including items that are currently unacceptable to the United States such as limitations on missile defense, outer space, and conventional strike systems. Second, with the U.S.-Russia political relationship in their worse state of affairs since the end of the Cold War, it is difficult to see how the larger political issues would not intrude on any arms control negotiations. Furthermore, there are also serious doubts as to whether the Trump administration has the right team in place to effectively negotiate a successor agreement to New START.

Towards a new strategic stability framework

The INF Treaty’s demise is in many ways evidence of a much larger trend: the collapse of the current U.S.-Russia strategic stability framework. While that framework has served the security interests of the United States, it needs to be updated if it is to remain relevant. Key to that update is the incorporation of new actors like China and emerging technologies. But it will take time for this transition to occur. Therefore, a number of short- to mid-term steps must be taken to help effectively manage the end of the INF Treaty and facilitate a transition to a new strategic stability framework.

First, the United States must closely coordinate with allies as it considers how to effectively respond to Russia’s new ground-launched cruise missile capability. This will be of particular importance when it comes to the possible development and deployment of U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles. Any such deployment would have significant political and strategic implications, thus early consultations are a must. However, there remain serious questions whether such deployments are needed, as the United States could likely meet its military requirements with sea- and air-launched cruise missile capabilities.

Second, the Trump administration and Congress should take steps to identify what the United States wants to achieve in a future strategic arms control regime. This could be achieved through a variety of mechanisms, including: establishing a congressionally-mandated commission similar to the Strategic Posture Commission; directing a Federally-Funded Research and Development Center to undertake a study on the issue; or having the Executive Branch conduct internal reviews. Thinks tanks and other outside groups can also contribute. Indeed, later this year, the Brookings Institution plans to launch a project examining this critical question.

Third, with relations between the United States and Russia at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, it is critical to maintain dialogue between the two countries on strategic issues. Therefore, both sides should convene senior-level talks to address the full spectrum of strategic stability issues.

Fourth, the United States must seriously consider how best to bring China and other new actors into a future strategic stability framework. China’s development of nuclear, cyber, anti-satellite, and other capabilities are increasingly impacting strategic stability calculations. Therefore, moving forward, the Trump administration should consider convening a trilateral discussion between the United States, Russia, and China to explore the future of strategic stability in greater detail.

Finally, the United States should extend New START in order to facilitate continued bipartisan domestic political support for strategic nuclear modernization; maintain a level of strategic stability with Russia in the near-to-mid-term; and buy time as we work to develop a new framework for strategic stability that incorporates new actors and emerging technologies.