The Trump administration is preparing a major mistake on the INF Treaty

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton answers questions from reporters after announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the Vienna protocol and the 1955 "Treaty of Amity" with Iran as White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks on during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2018.      REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC17A0C7F6B0

Press reports indicate that National Security Advisor John Bolton wants the United States to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and that he will inform the Russians of this when he visits Moscow October 22-23. Washington certainly has grounds for withdrawal: Russia is violating the agreement. But doing so now would be a mistake.

A treaty in trouble

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, which banned all U.S. and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The landmark agreement resulted in the destruction of nearly 2,700 missiles as well as their launchers and gave a boost to the broader U.S.-Soviet relationship as the Cold War wound down.

Concern about the treaty’s future arose in 2014, when the Obama administration charged Russia with violating the treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile of intermediate range. Trump administration officials in 2017 charged that Russia had begun deploying the missile, known as the 9M729.

The Obama administration and, at least initially, the Trump administration set the goal of bringing Russia back into compliance. In December 2017, Washington announced an “integrated strategy” to press Moscow to return to compliance.

So far, the strategy does not seem to have worked.

Bolton’s position comes as no surprise. He views arms control with disdain. He has long called for withdrawal from the INF Treaty, was a driving force behind the U.S. decision in 2001 to leave the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and opposed the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Withdrawal now would be a mistake

Russia’s failure to correct the violation gives justifiable grounds for leaving the treaty. But is it the smart thing to do now?

First, the United States will get the blame for killing the treaty. Moscow has vigorously denied the U.S. charge and claims the United States is in fact the one in violation. U.S. evidence of the Russian violation is highly classified, so the public debate will devolve into an exchange of charges, counter-charges, and denials. Given the low credibility of the Trump administration, Washington will have a hard time winning that debate.

Second, once the United States withdraws from the treaty, there is no reason for Russia to even pretend it is observing the limits. Moscow will be free to deploy the 9M729 cruise missile, and an intermediate-range ballistic missile if it wants, without any restraint.

Third, the U.S. decision will prove controversial with European allies and others who continue to see value in the treaty. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy; no European leader has raised a public stink with the Kremlin about the Russian violation, and there’s little to suggest the violation was protested much in private at high levels. Still, this is the kind of question where the U.S. position would benefit from alliance solidarity.

Fourth, the United States currently has no missile that it could quickly deploy to match the Russians. The “integrated strategy” included a treaty-compliant research and development program for a U.S. intermediate-range missile (development is allowed short of flight-testing), but it provided little money.

Even if the Pentagon were to build the missile, however, a big question remains: Where could the United States put it? An intermediate-range missile based in the United States cannot reach Russia, so it will not cause much alarm in the Kremlin. And it is unlikely that the United States could persuade NATO, Japan or South Korea to deploy it.

So, U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a loser all around. Russian officials probably are celebrating the news.

U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty is a loser all around.

A smarter way forward

There is a smarter strategy that might have a chance of saving the treaty, or that at least would prepare the ground for a better withdrawal scenario.

First, Washington should press allies in Europe and Asia to have leaders raise the need to correct the Russian violation directly with President Vladimir Putin. They need to turn up the heat on Moscow on this problem.

Second, the U.S. military should take treaty-compliant steps now to offset the Russian violation. Such steps could include moving a large number of conventionally-armed Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Missiles to Europe, temporarily deploying B-1 bombers across the Atlantic as JASSM delivery platforms, and augmenting the number of conventionally-armed sea-launched cruise missiles on board U.S. warships in European waters.

Third, the intelligence community should prepare a presentation, which would require declassifying some information, regarding the Russian violation. If/when the United States withdraws from the treaty, it needs to make the case for why it did so.

The INF Treaty likely has entered its final days. That’s unfortunate. The Trump administration should make one last push, with the help of allies, to get Moscow back into compliance. And, if that fails, it should have ready a presentation that will win the inevitable fight over who killed the treaty.