Arms control: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The Obama administration has released a report formally charging Russia with violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.  This comes in the midst of a drumbeat of negative Russia news, from arming rebels in Ukraine and annexing Crimea to propping up the brutal dictatorship in Syria and hosting Edward Snowden. To some, the INF issue will be seen as more evidence that it’s impossible to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

But it’s important to keep some context in mind.  First, the INF Treaty – one of President Reagan’s proudest arms control accomplishments – has been extremely successful overall.  It verifiably eliminated the entire class of intermediate-range ground-based missiles from the U.S. and Soviet arsenals, including the three-warhead SS-20s that had posed a terrifying threat to Europe and the Pershing II and cruise missiles NATO had deployed in response.  It introduced on-site inspection as a major tool in U.S.-Russian (or, then, U.S.-Soviet) arms treaties for the first time.  In that way, it laid the foundation for the START, START II, and New START nuclear reductions treaties – and the administration has confirmed that Russia continues to follow through on the nuclear arms reductions it committed to in New START.

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Second, while the Russian actions in question are real and troubling, they do not pose an immediate military threat.  Press reports and congressional testimony suggest that Russia tested a cruise missile developed for use as a sea-launched system (which the treaty permits) from a launcher designed for ground basing (which the treaty prohibits). There is no indication yet that Russia has yet deployed substantial numbers of this weapon.  The United States is demanding that any items tested in a prohibited way be eliminated, though given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, no one should hold their breath waiting for that to happen.

Third, this Russian testing does not eliminate the substantial benefits for the world that the INF Treaty or the larger process of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control have provided.  We live in a safer world with fewer nuclear weapons and less risk that they will be used because of the arms control treaties that are in place today.  But there’s more to be done, as the roughly 17,000 nuclear weapons that still exist in the world – most of them many times the size of the weapons that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki – are still far more than needed for deterrence, an excess that results in both unnecessary dangers and unjustified costs.

So where do we go from here?  The U.S. government should do what it can to convince Russia not to deploy any prohibited ground-launched cruise missiles.  It should work with countries in Europe and Asia, who would face the main military threats such weapons might pose, to join in pressuring Russia not to take this step.  At the same time, it should prepare shifts in the U.S. military posture – not necessarily nuclear ones – to ensure that Russia gets no military advantage if it does move ahead.  This could include, for example, expanded air defense assistance to U.S. allies within range.  Since the United States and its allies already have to cope with cruise missiles launched from the sea and the air, a Russian potential to add ground-launched cruise missiles to the mix will pose only a modest additional threat.

Finally, the U.S. government should continue to pursue arms control agreements that are judged to benefit the security of the United States and the world – taking into account how well they can be verified, the odds of cheating, and our options for responding to any cheating that does occur.  President Reagan negotiated arms control agreements with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War not because they were our friends, but because they were our enemies.  That’s why we wanted to limit their nuclear forces.  President Reagan was forceful in dealing with Soviet violations – some of which negotiation managed to reverse – but that did not stop him from moving forward with arms control agreements.  As relations with Russia grow more frosty, the same rules apply.

This INF Treaty violation is reason to be careful in our nuclear dealings with Russia – as if any more reasons were needed.  But it is not reason to ignore the very real risks to the American people posed by the thousands of unneeded Cold War nuclear weapons still in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, or the role negotiated restraints can still play in reducing those risks.

Bunn is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and co-principal investigator of the Center’s Project on Managing the Atom.

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