National security adviser John Bolton has advised that the U.S. leave the agreement and inform Russia of the move next week.
The INF Treaty, signed between the U.S. and Russia back in 1987, bans all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. While the Obama administration had accused Moscow of violating the agreement, Pentagon officials have been more vocal under the Trump administration about their growing concerns.
The matter became public following March 2017 comments by General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating Russia’s deployment of a ground-based cruise missile violated the agreement. Russia denied the allegations, however since the Selva’s speech, Defense Department officials have been increasingly outspoken regarding their concerns.
As to those officials, if Russia is violating the agreement while the U.S. is holding to its standards, it harms America’s defense position. With such concerns, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has been publicly hesitant about the value of the treaty, particularly when asked about the agreement on Capitol Hill.
During an October 2, 2018 NATO meeting, Mattis hinted a decision on America’s role in the INF agreement was coming.
“I want the advice from the NATO nations, what should we do with a treaty that two nations entered into, that’s us, the United States, but Russia is not,” Mattis said to the media. “I’m going to point out the circumstances, which we’ve discussed before at NATO. However, I want their recommendation when I return to Washington, D.C.
“I cannot predict where it will go. It’s a decision for the president. But I can tell you that both on Capitol Hill and in the State Department, there is a lot of concern about the situation. I will return with the advice of our allies and engage in discussion to determine what will happen next.”
A few days later, Mattis emphasized his comments, stating: “Russia must be in compliance with the INF Treaty, or the U.S. will respond to its disregard of the treaty’s specific limitations.
“Make no mistake: The current situation with Russia is a deliberate violation of the treaty and is indefensible. We discussed this matter during ministerial meetings among trusted allies.”
It is not yet clear whether leaving the INF Treaty would jeopardize negotiations on the New START nuclear reduction treaty. Early in his presidency, Donald Trump was a vocal critic of the agreement, calling it “one-sided” and “bad.”
Rebecca Heinrichs, an analyst with the Hudson Institute, said: “It makes no sense to remain party to treaties of which the United States is the only one complying.”
“Treaties are not ornament pieces to be collected; they’re supposed to be tools that serve U.S. interests. The Russians have been on notice to become compliant for years now. The Obama administration tried to force them to comply and so has the Trump administration,” Heinrichs added. “For Bolton, the tolerance for being treated as suckers is exceptionally low.”
Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists believes leaving the treaty would send an influential signal to nations like China that developing ground-based cruise missiles is acceptable, signaling “a new dynamic phase where countries would compete to deploy and counter-deploy INF weapons.”
In addition, he worries that withdrawing from the INF goes hand in hand with deploying such weapons to Europe, which could “trigger widespread political disputes in Europe and within NATO. President Trump would further divide NATO, rather than reinforce the alliance, and thus grant Putin one of his most important foreign policy objectives.”
“Overall, defense hawks in Moscow and Washington appear to have hijacked foreign policy and thrown the arms control baby out with the bath water instead of trying to repair relations and repair treaties and strengthen international security,” Kristensen said.
Even before today’s news, the U.S. was working to fund research and development on a ground-based cruise missile, a system banned under the INF agreement. The position of the Pentagon has been that such a weapon could be developed but not deployed. This position holds firmly to the treaty boundaries while providing a potential threat or trade-off for negotiations with Russia.
The threat of upgraded nuclear capabilities has been a public topic of conversation by Pentagon officials as part of a broader negotiation to try and force Russia to comply with INF treaty agreement.
Greg Weaver, former deputy director for strategic stability on the Joint Staff J5 directorate, said during a February 1, 2018 meeting with the media that he viewed the announced development of a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, allowed within the INF Treaty boundaries, as part of a potential trade-off.
“Russia agreed to return to verifiable arms control measures to address imbalance in nonstrategic nuclear forces, the U.S. may agree to limit or forgo acquiring a nuclear SLCM,” Weaver said. “This is a response to Russian expansion of their capability and the nature of their strategy and doctrine. The United States is not arms racing. We are responding to Russian initiative.”
Mattis picked that thread up during a February 6, 2018 House Armed Services Committee hearing, saying: “I want to make certain that our negotiators have something to negotiate with, that we want Russia to comply with treaty agreement. We do not want to forgo the INF Treaty, but at the same time we have options if Russia continues to go down this path.