Just shy of 31 years ago, on the afternoon of December 8, 1987, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in St. Vladimir’s Hall in the Kremlin.
The treaty required the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to eliminate from their respective arsenals all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of approximately 300 to 3400 miles.
Speaking before reporters and assembled officials and dignitaries on that December afternoon in the Kremlin, President Reagan observed that
For the first time in history, an entire class of US-Soviet nuclear missiles is eliminated. In addition this treaty provides for the most stringent verification in history. And for the first time, inspection teams are actually in residence in our respective countries…. we must not stop here, Mr. General Secretary; there is much more to be done.
Over the weekend, President Donald Trump offhandedly announced that he was withdrawing from the landmark arms-control agreement. This week, US National Security Adviser—and former Fox News fixture—John Bolton, who has long sought such a move, was in Moscow meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin.
In recent years, both the Obama and Trump State Departments have issued reports accusing Russia of noncompliance with the treaty, charges that Russia has denied. For its part, Russia has objected to the placement of missile-defense installations in eastern Europe as violations of the treaty. Perhaps in anticipation of a Russian withdrawal from the INF, successive defense-authorizations acts have, according to The Washington Post, “funded research and development of weapons that, if ever tested, would violate the INF Treaty.”
According to Trump, “Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years.… We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement.”
The decision to withdraw from the treaty has provoked widespread criticism. Leonid Slutsky, a Russian parliamentarian who serves as chairman of the Duma’s foreign-affairs committee, said America’s withdrawal “would mean a real new Cold War and an arms race with 100 percent probability.” Appearing on CNN this Sunday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker criticized the move, calling it a “huge mistake.”
The reaction was no better across the Atlantic. A statement released by the EU said, “The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.” French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly raised his concerns with Trump in a phone call over the weekend.
Grassroots and nongovernmental organizations also condemned the move. The nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility released a statement saying the planned withdrawal “would make United States citizens less safe and increase the risk of nuclear war between the United States and Russia…. This is not only a matter of security abroad. Withdrawing from the INF would weaken U.S. national security and put Americans’ lives at greater risk.” The Union of Concerned Scientists also criticized the move, noting that “what apparently underlies this decision is a general antipathy by key members of the administration to negotiated agreements that in any way constrain US weapons systems.”
Trump’s decision to tear up the INF has frequently been chalked up to a supposed strategic decision by the administration to focus on the rising threat posed by China. Neoconservative Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton released a statement that echoed this view: “The Chinese are stockpiling missiles because they’re not bound by [the INF] at all. I’ve long called for the U.S. to consider whether this treaty still serves our national interest.”
Perhaps so. But would not a common sense approach to the looming challenge in Asia be to renegotiate and strengthen the existing treaty by bringing China aboard?
It would be a mistake to discount the role that Russiagate may have played in the unfolding drama. Trump’s hard-line posturing toward the Kremlin looks to be calculated to insulate him from charges of “being soft” on the Russians with two weeks to go before the critical midterm elections.
In that sense, this historic arms-control agreement may, in the light of history, be come to be seen as a casualty of the Russian frenzy that has had Washington in its grip for the past two and a half years.
Now is the time for members of both parties in both houses of Congress—whatever their views of Trump and the Russians—to step up and hold the administration to account for this needless and reckless decision.