Withdrawal from Russia nuclear treaty is right move for America

Withdrawal from Russia nuclear treaty is right move for America
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On Saturday, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE announced that the United States will be terminating the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia. Critics have suggested that this is a heedless move that will needlessly stoke an arms race with Russia, but, in fact, it is a necessary step for maintaining peace and stability, not only in Europe, but in Asia as well.

Signed in the waning days of the Cold War, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) bans the United States and Russia from testing or deploying ground-based missiles with ranges of 500-5,550 kilometers. Prior to this agreement, Washington and Moscow possessed thousands of ground-based missiles in Europe pointed at each other, but this treaty eliminated them altogether. INF may be the most successful arms control agreement in history because it did not merely enforce numerical limits, but banned outright an entire class of weapons.

By the mid-2000s, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin began chaffing under the treaty’s restrictions. He thought it was nonsensical that the United States and the Soviet Union, the world’s two greatest nuclear superpowers, were prevented from possessing these missiles when other powers, including China, India, Pakistan, were building up their own forces in this category. Instead of providing public notification of an intention to withdraw from the Treaty, however, Putin simply cheated. In 2014, the Obama administration announced that Russia had secretly developed and tested an outlawed cruise missile.

At that time, I and other experts immediately called for the Obama administration to respond by conducting research and development into our own INF-range systems. Arms control agreements only work if there are clear costs for violations and building our own missiles would have given Russia an incentive to return to compliance with the Treaty. Moreover, it would have allowed us to offset any Russian advantage should Moscow continue to cheat.  

But the Obama administration feared that such a step would be too provocative, and they hoped that Moscow might be coaxed into returning to compliance. Instead, Russia plowed ahead and, according to US officials, Moscow has now fully deployed the banned missiles.

The treaty was dead, therefore, well before this weekend’s announcement and it would be foolish for the United States to be constrained by limits abided by no other nation.

Moreover, an even more important reason for the United States to withdraw from INF can be found in Asia. For decades, stability in East Asia has been underwritten by American military power, but China’s growing military capabilities are upending the regional balance and leading some to question the ability of the United States to defend longstanding allies.

The US National Defense Strategy, published earlier this year, recognized China as a foremost threat to U.S. national security, but we have yet to follow through with any major military moves to show that we are serious about this problem.

Moreover, our existing military options for countering China are not great. As China increases its firepower by deploying thousands of cheap, ground-based, surface-to-surface missiles on its coast, we counter with air and sea-launched cruise missiles on expensive warships and fighter aircraft. We are on the losing side of this cost equation.

By pulling out of INF, however, we can beat China at its own game. Large numbers of US ground-based and mobile conventional missiles deployed on the territory of US allies in Asia would serve as an effective and cost-efficient check on Chinese expansion. They would frustrate Beijing’s attempts at coercion and restore a favorable military balance to the region.

Indeed, Congress has already allocated funding for R&D on an INF-range system in the current defense bill. And, while building a new system from scratch will take time, we can begin to fill this gap in our capabilities immediately with steps such as taking ashore existing ship-based Tomahawk cruise missiles. Japan, Australia, and Guam would be near-term candidates to host these capabilities and, as if the threat from China intensifies in the coming decade, interest would grown from other countries, including possibly South Korea and the Philippines.

Some argue that such steps would be destabilizing, but what would be truly destabilizing would be to allow Russia and China, autocratic powers with revisionist aims, to exploit a one-side treaty on their way to a decisive military advantage. Withdrawing from the INF, therefore, is a prudent move necessary for the continued defense of the United States and its democratic allies.    

Matthew Kroenig is the deputy director for strategy in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and an associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University.