WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - President Donald Trump promised to remove the U.S. from a the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia in late October, sparking concerns that a new arms race might be on the horizon.
Trump's reasoning for the abrupt announcement was simple: Russia was cheating.
"Russia has violated the agreement. They've been violating it for many years," said Trump, before departing a campaign event in Nevada.
What is the INF treaty?
Signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the INF treaty banned ground-launched missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. At the time, it was considered a monumental agreement between the world's premier nuclear powers during the twilight of the Cold War.
"So, before that point, the United States and Soviet Union had thousands of missiles in Europe pointed at each other," said Dr. Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear arms expert and deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. "With this treaty, they were completely eliminated."
The treaty is credited with helping prevent a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange, which would have likely spelled disaster for both sides. Unlike massive intercontinetnal ballistic missiles, intermediate-range missiles are easier to conceal and are much more mobile, making them more difficult to track. They also have a shorter flight time to target, offering less time to prepare and defend against them. It was, therefore, in the interest of both sides to ban them.
The INF survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its future became uncertain after the Obama administration accused Russia of breaching it in 2014, citing tests performed in 2008.
Why would Russia cheat the agreement?
While the INF treaty may have been successful during the Cold War, its application had a major flaw after it was over: It only applied to the U.S. and Russia. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, several rising powers began developing their own intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs).
"So, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, all have these capabilities," said Kroenig.
Russia noticed this development and saw it as a threat, but instead of renegotiating the treaty, it began developing new intermediate-range models like the SS-26 Stone, also known as the Iskander, and the SSC-8 cruise missile.
Can anything be done?
Security experts have been tracking Russia's missile development for years, according to Kroenig, so there was an expectation that the INF treaty would deteriorate. What surprised experts was Trump's abrupt announcement, and the apparent lack of consultation with allies.
"We believe that the U.S. and Russia need to remain engaged in constructive dialogue to preserve the treaty and to ensure its full and verifiable implementation, which, of course, is crucial for European and global security," said Maja Kocijancic, the European Commission's spokeswoman for foreign affairs, in a press briefing shortly after Trump's announcement.
Kocijancic noted that the INF treaty has played an important role in ensuring compliance of the larger Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an agreement that puts strict limitations on the nuclear capabilities of its signatories. Many U.S. allies in Europe have no nuclear stockpiles of their own, instead relying on the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" for protection. It is the primacy of U.S. nuclear capabilities that has kept allies confident that they are protected, explained Kroenig. Should the U.S. fall behind in any category, that confidence could deteriorate.
Trump's abrupt removal from the treaty has experts and allies concerned that a nuclear arms build-up will result. They argue that it is in Washington's interest to stay in the agreement to prevent an arms race, and avoid diplomatic issues.
"Because shredding the INF treaty won't make the Russians behave -- it just absolves them of responsibility and shifts blame for the breakdown to the Americans," wrote Derek Johnson, executive director of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear weapons nonprofit, in an op-ed for CNN. "It also kicks open the door for the United States and Russia to deploy a greater number of the weapons systems at issue, which puts even more cities at risk."
Kroenig takes a different point of view.
"I would say the arms race has already begun, the United States is just sitting it out. ... If we allow Russia and China to exploit this one-sided treaty to gain a decisive military advantage, that would be very destabilizing."
That said, Kroenig noted it could take as many as 10 years for the U.S. to catch up to Russia's intermediate-range missile capabilities.