Fire in the Sky: Fall of the INF

Erik Nolan Analysis, Conflict & Security, Global

5 minute read

The Trump administration’s announcement of the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is the latest development in the chilling of American and Russian relations. While not altogether unexpected, the implications of INF’s ending precipitate the return of a multipolar struggle for power and influence on the world stage.

Treaty Origins

Signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987, the INF Treaty prohibited the possession, testing, and deployment of ground-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. Primarily, the INF served to alleviate tensions of a strategic arms buildup in Western Europe during the Cold War, and led to the disarmament of roughly 2,600 missiles between the United States and the Soviet Union. Air and sea-launching platforms were not affected by the treaty, however, and continue to be deployed. China was also not a signatory to the treaty and has thus been able to pursue arms development well into the 21st century without such constraints.

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear nonproliferation continues to be an important part of international diplomacy but has changed from the outlook of a bipolar standoff between superpowers to a broader diplomatic posture in the regions of the world where proliferation is relevant. In this context, the INF is seen as a tool of policy itself by the United States and Russia, instead of the Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) it is meant to control.

Russia’s Calculus

For the Russian Federation, whose military is categorically outmatched by the United States and her allies, the necessity to have a reinforced deterrence has manifested itself in the development of weapons that can undermine or evade anti-ballistic missile systems used in the west. Moscow’s view of an increasingly constricting ring of NATO countries and U.S. military bases spurred the development of a bevy of systems like the SSC-8 Screwdriver, an intermediate-range cruise missile in violation of the INF. Cruise missiles, unlike ballistic missiles, can fly at low enough altitudes to avoid detection by conventional missile defence and make interception incredibly difficult.

The Russian calculus for systems that can compromise Western defences is partly a question of efficiency, as the economic and societal costs of achieving full military parity with the United States and NATO is simply not feasible. But the larger aspect of the INF’s decay stems from the Kremlin’s desire to remind Europe that Russia will view developments like the induction of Montenegro into NATO as eroding its influence and ultimately a threat to its security. So while systems like the SSC-8 have no strategic capability to strike the United States, intermediate-range missiles that can effectively undermine American-developed defensive systems will serve as a check on what Russia views as a hostile expansion.

Washington’s takeaway from Russia’s investment into these systems demonstrated that a bilateral agreement on arms control was more harmful than helpful if one party did not abide by the terms of the agreement. Historically, the United States viewed itself as the credible participant in nuclear nonproliferation, and a change in that dynamic would necessitate an adjustment in multilateral agreements through diplomatic channels; this was most clearly demonstrated by the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the ABM treaty in 2001 and subsequent signing of the SORT with Russia in 2002. In the aftermath of 9/11, the American outlook on threats from “rogue actors” constituted a valid reason showing that the ABM treaty had outlived its usefulness.

To then see Moscow pursue development in strategic weapons while citing the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty as a pretext for doing so did not convince the Trump administration of Russia’s sincerity. In light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and a disinformation campaign in American elections, the development of weapons such as the SSC-8 in direct violation of the treaty demonstrates that the Kremlin is engaged in a long-term campaign to destabilize the international liberal framework that has prevailed for the past several decades and undermine the United States’ role as the leader of that framework.

A False Start

With the imminent collapse of the INF, the strategic arms control regime will largely be limited to the NEW START treaty, which is set to expire in 2021 (barring a likely 5-year extension). The impetus for INF’s deterioration is informative to the geopolitical regions in which the INF had sought to impose stability over, and the resulting proto arms race is predicated on this evolving international landscape. The soon-to-be-defunct INF is, therefore, a consequence of the strategic tensions playing out in the world.

As it stands, the rapidly changing international landscape whets an appetite for the modernization of strategic weapons in Russia and the United States which current nonproliferation treaties cannot serve. However, there is cause to expect that the INF will have a replacement accord several years down the line which accommodates the concerns of the international community. Future participants will also likely include China and India, but any landmark multilateral arms control treaty will almost definitely not be considered until technological advancements in nuclear weapons like hypersonic glide vehicles and enhanced interceptors have been more fully realized, since a premature treaty would be less equitable to one side’s interests if they did not possess such capabilities in their strategic arsenal.

About the Author
Erik Nolan

Erik Nolan

Erik Nolan is a director and senior analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. An alumnus of Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, his research interests include nuclear arms proliferation and deterrence.

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