Trump’s INF announcement: Another gift to Putin?

Trump’s INF announcement: Another gift to Putin?
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For several years, the United States has documented Russia’s ongoing violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. But instead of holding Moscow accountable and working to bring Russia back into compliance with its obligations, President TrumpDonald John TrumpImpeachment? Not so fast without missing element of criminal intent Feds say marijuana ties could prevent immigrants from getting US citizenship Trump approval drops to 2019 low after Mueller report's release: poll MORE told reporters at a campaign rally last weekend, “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

National security adviser John Bolton, a longstanding opponent of the treaty, was in Moscow this week to discuss the issue.

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Pulling out of the INF Treaty would be a strategic blunder. It would free Russia to deploy currently prohibited missiles without constraint and further undermine U.S. credibility with our allies. The United States would shoulder the blame for the collapse of one of the two remaining U.S.-Russian agreements controlling nuclear weapons. U.S. withdrawal would remove valuable verification mechanisms and introduce additional U.S. and Russian uncertainty regarding the other’s nuclear forces and intentions.

Signed by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987, the INF Treaty prohibited the testing, possession and deployment of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Prior to the treaty, such weapons increased the danger of rapid escalation to a nuclear war that would lay to waste the cities of Europe. The treaty substantially reduced that risk.

As recently as April 2018, the State Department reported that the priority for the United States was “for Russia to return to compliance to ensure the continued viability of the INF Treaty.” And in July, NATO members including the United States signed onto a statement in Brussels declaring that INF was “crucial to Euro-Atlantic security” and that NATO remains committed to its preservation.

What explains Trump’s precipitous announcement, made without consulting allies or the Congress? Perhaps the president and his advisers have calculated that the treaty no longer holds much value when compared to the military benefits of ridding the United States of INF restraints. The treaty bans the United States and Russia from deploying certain medium-range missiles everywhere, while leaving other states, in particular China, unconstrained.

But, according to Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States has no need for ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia. Nor would the United States today be able to deploy missiles in the prohibited range. Our air- and sea-based weapons, including both nuclear and conventional systems, which are permitted under INF, provide ample deterrence and defense against China and North Korea.

Japan would never agree to the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil. And as the United States works to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea, Seoul is unlikely to permit new medium-range missiles in South Korea. Putting medium-range missiles in Guam would offer no new military advantage.

Are President Trump’s recent statements part of a negotiating strategy, an effort to pressure Russia back to the negotiating table? Unlikely. The administration has expended little diplomatic effort on the INF Treaty. Last December, the administration raised the issue at a multilateral meeting (including Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, who also are part of the accord) of the treaty’s “Special Verification Commission.” The next step should have been a U.S.-Russian bilateral meeting where the delegations could have hashed out their grievances in detail (Russia also complains of U.S. violations) and set themselves on a path to overcome the problem. But no such meeting was reported.

President Trump also linked the rescue of the treaty to China’s complying with its restrictions. But China is not a party to the treaty. Striking a deal with China would require negotiating an entirely separate set of issues. If the administration were truly interested in getting Russia to behave, why make China’s unlikely cooperation a condition?

President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty is itself a dangerous development. In the context of the administration’s foot-dragging on the extension of New START — the treaty that limits U.S. and Russian strategic weapons, which will expire in 2021 — the news on INF is alarming.

Members of Congress need a full explanation of the administration’s rash moves on INF. The American people need much more information on the growing dangers lurking in our nuclear-laden relationship with Russia.

Fifty-six years ago this month, President Kennedy faced a group of hawkish advisers who urged him to bomb Soviet missile sites in Cuba. The world was perched at the brink of nuclear war. President Kennedy found a peaceful way out of the crisis and initiated an era of cooperative agreements with the Soviet Union, and later Russia, to reduce the nuclear dangers. President Trump appears to be ready to return us to the days where the world lived in fear of nuclear war.

Congress and the American people should demand that the administration hold Russia accountable for its INF violations, preserve the treaty, and extend and strengthen our other arms-control commitments.

Martin B. Malin is executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.Follow him on Twitter @ManagingtheAtom.