Farewell to INF Treaty: Setting Multilateralization for N-Person’s Game?

nuclear war 1

The Unites States withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty (1987) and the subsequent Russian decision to quit the regime generated considerable fears and anxieties across the world about a renewed nuclear arms race and showdown. The allegations and counter-allegations in respect of the violation of the Treaty by both parties continued for several years and Washington and Moscow crossed swords over the issue on many occasions and across different fora. US President Donald Trump had indicated the possibility of Washington’s pull out in 2018, in the wake of the reports about Russian violation of the Treaty. Yet, many tend to believe that the action has been pre-planned to extend the coverage of the regime to China, in the emerging geo-strategic environs involving Russia and China. So far, the INF Treaty is a bilateral instrument between the US and Russia and many nuclear weapon powers are outside the ambit of the Treaty.

President Donald Trump in his statement said that Russia has, for long, violated the Treaty “with impunity, covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that poses a direct threat” to US allies and troops abroad.  He said that NATO allies also “fully support” insofar as “they understand the threat posed by Russia’s violation and the risks to arms control posed by ignoring treaty violations” Trump further claimed that Washington “has fully adhered to the INF Treaty for more than 30 years” but it “will not remain constrained by its terms while Russia misrepresents its actions.”  Indicating that the US “cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other,” he said that the US “will move forward with developing (its) own military response options and will work with NATO and (its) other allies and partners to deny Russia any military advantage from its unlawful conduct (US, White House 2019a).

The White House statement continues:

“Nearly 6 years of diplomacy and more than 30 meetings have failed to convince Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty. Enough is enough. At President Trump’s direction, the United States will suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2, 2019. The United States will also deliver formal notice on February 2, 2019, to Russia and other Treaty Parties, that the United States will withdraw from the INF Treaty in 6 months. Only Russia’s complete and verifiable destruction of its INF-violating missiles, their launchers, and associated equipment can save the INF Treaty” (US, White House 2019b).

The White House statement accused Russia of having “produced and fielded multiple battalions of its INF-violating, nuclear-capable missile, which threaten our allies and troops in Europe and Asia.” It further warmed that Washington “will move forward with developing its own intermediate-range, conventionally-armed, ground-launched missile system. In addition, China and Iran, which are not parties to the Treaty, each possess more than 1,000 INF Treaty-range missiles” (Ibid).

In December 2018, NATO Allies had declared that Russia “developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty, and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security.  Allies strongly supported the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty and called upon Russia to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance. Since that announcement, the United States and other Allies have remained open to dialogue, and have engaged Russia on its violation, including at a NATO-Russia Council meeting on 25 January 2019. Allies regret that Russia, as part of its broader pattern of behaviour, continues to deny its INF Treaty violation, refuses to provide any credible response, and has taken no demonstrable steps toward returning to full and verifiable compliance.” It Further said that the United States “is taking this action in response to the significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security posed by Russia’s covert testing, production, and fielding of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile systems. Allies fully support this action (NATO 2019).

Responding to the US suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin said   that “Moscow’s proposals remain on the table. Moscow issued a ‘mirror’ response to the US move by suspending its own observance of the treaty”  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned  that “Moscow would react to military threats related to the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty “by military-technical means”, i.e. with weapons development” (Sputnik 2019). According to Russian experts, “US plans to build low-power nuclear weapons will sharply lower the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.”  Moreover, Russian Foreign Ministry charged that NATO states were “not ready for meaningful dialogue on the Mk-41 launchers, which are located in Romania, and will appear in Poland next year, in violation of the INF Treaty. These are integrated into the NATO missile defence system, so the alliance is also directly responsible for undermining the treaty”(Ibid). The Russian president said that Moscow would suspend its obligations under the INF Treaty in response to a similar decision announced by US. He reminded that “the use of target rockets and the deployment of Mk 41 launchers in Europe since 2014 by the United States is a direct violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty” (Ibid).

INF Setting

The history of INF Treaty goes back to 1970s when the US was so exercised over the control of intermediate-range missiles emerged in the wake of Moscow’s domestic deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles during the decade. The SS-20 appeared to be qualitatively improved version of Soviet nuclear forces in the European theater by providing a longer-range, multiple-warhead alternative to the earlier versions of Soviet SS-4 and SS-5 single-warhead missiles (Arms Control Association 2019).

NATO ministers responded to this with its “dual-track” strategy—a parallel drive for arms control negotiations with the deployment of intermediate-range, nuclear-armed U.S. missiles (ground-launched cruise missiles and the Pershing II) in Europe to balance the SS-20. Negotiations, however, fell through even a US missile deployments continued in the early 1980s. Efforts began to make headway when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General-Secretary of the CPSU in March 1985. Moscow and Washington held talks and negotiations in the following year(Ibid). The efforts by President Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev eventually culminated in the signing of the INF Treaty on 8 December 1987, and the treaty came into force on 1 June 1988 (US, Department of State 1987).

The ban under the regime originally applied only to US and Soviet forces, but the Treaty’s membership expanded in 1991 with a view to including successor states of the former Soviet Union. Currently,  Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, which had inspectable facilities on their territories at the time of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, joined Russia and the United States in the treaty’s implementation. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also possessed INF Treaty-range facilities (SS-23 operating bases) but forgo treaty meetings with the consent of the other states-parties (Arms Control Association 2019).

Thus, active states-parties to the regime were just five countries. However, many European countries also dismantled the INF Treaty-range missiles in the post-Cold war era.  Germany, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic dismantled their intermediate-range missiles in the decade, and Slovakia removed all of its missiles by October 2000 after extensive US pressure.  On 31 May 2002, Bulgaria, the remaining possessor of intermediate-range missiles in Eastern Europe entered into an agreement with the United States to dismantle all of its INF Treaty-related missiles. Within six months, Bulgaria completed the dismantling of its missiles (Ibid).

By 31 May 2001, the States-parties’ right to carry out on-site inspection under the Treaty came to an end. Yet, the use of surveillance satellites for data gathering followed.  The Treaty had set up the Special Verification Commission (SVC) to function as an implementing agency for the Treaty. It apparently addressed issues of compliance and agreeing on measures to “improve (the treaty’s) viability and effectiveness.” Insofar as the INF Treaty is of an indefinite period, states-parties could arrange the SVC at any time (Ibid). However, Article XV of the Treaty says that each party “shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to withdraw to the other Party six months prior to withdrawal from this Treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests” (US, Department of State 1987). It is this clause that enables both parties to pull out from the regime.

However, the INF Treaty’s protocol on missile elimination identified the specific types of ground-launched missiles to be dispensed with and the acceptable means of doing so (Ibid). Under the regime, the US was obliged to get rid of its Pershing II, Pershing IA, and Pershing IB ballistic missiles and BGM-109G cruise missiles. The Soviet Union had to eliminate its SS-20, SS-4, SS-5, SS-12, and SS-23 ballistic missiles and SSC-X-4 cruise missiles. Besides,  both the US and Soviet Union  were obliged to destroy all INF Treaty-related training missiles, rocket stages, launch canisters, and launchers. Nearly all missiles were done away with through different processes and procedures (Arms Control Association 2019).

Meanwhile, Russia, at least since 2000, began to raise the question of withdrawing from the Treaty arguing that the regime unjustly constrained it from having weapons that its neighbours such as China were developing and deploying. Russia also had warned that the proposed American deployment of strategic anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe might cause its withdrawal from the Treaty.  Despite all this, both parties issued  a statement at the United Nations General Assembly in October  2007 reaffirming their support for the Treaty and calling on all other states to join them in renouncing the missiles banned by the regime. However, the declaration of such commitments did not continue for long. During 2013-14, several reports indicated that Washington had concerns about Russia’s ‘violations’ of the Treaty. In July 2014, the State Department accused Russia of violating the accord by “producing and testing an illegal ground-launched cruise missile.” Though Russia dismissed such ‘allegations’, the US publicly stated that Russia continued to violate the Treaty. Meanwhile, press reports suggested that Russia had deployed an operational unit of the treaty-noncompliant cruise missile now known as the SSC-8. In March 2017, the Pentagon officials again confirmed that Russia had deployed a ground-launched cruise missile that “violates the spirit and intent” of the INF Treaty. The State Department’s 2017 annual assessment again pointed to Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty for the fourth consecutive year (Ibid).

In December 2017, the Trump administration brought out an integrated strategy to offset alleged Russian violations of the Treaty. It also involved the initiation of research and development on a conventional, road-mobile, intermediate-range missile system. In October 2018 President Trump announced his intention to “terminate” the INF Treaty, pointing to “Russian noncompliance and concerns about China’s intermediate-range missile arsenal.” On 4 December 2018, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States had “found Russia in “material breach” of the treaty and will suspend its treaty obligations in 60 days if Russia does not return to compliance in that time” (US, Department of State 2019).  This was followed by the Trump administration’s suspension of US obligations under the Treaty and announced its plan to pullout in six months. Russian President Putin immediately thereafter announced that Russia would be officially suspending its treaty obligations as well.

The reciprocal actions, on the part of both the US and Russia, in effect wrap up a regime viewed by many as one of the most vital safeguards against nuclear confrontation. The situation makes the US-Russia relations more complicated even as issues from the immediate past remain such as Russia’s attempts to take over Crimea from Ukraine, and its alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. Experts fear that the INF-free world will help strengthen Russia’s efforts to redesign its strategic balancing in Eurasian geopolitics. Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the non-proliferation programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says that “Nothing good will come out of the US withdrawal.” According to him, “The Trump administration has made a huge mistake – it’s a breakdown of arms control. It’s a breakdown of trust between US and Russia. The US will have problems with its European allies, and it will engage in a new arms race with China as well” (Al Jazeera 2019). Tom Nichols, a security expert, pointed out that  it was “a provocation to menace the Europeans and to see if they could bait the Americans into walking away.” He said that the Washington’s response brought to light how ‘confused’ its nuclear arms policy was (Ibid). Observers also pointed out that most European counties, including NATO Allies would not welcome any land-based intermediate-range missiles that the US might develop. Fitzpatrick, another nuclear expert, says that the ‘real reason’ for the US withdrawal was America’s anxiety over China’s buildup of intermediate-range missiles in the Western Pacific. Reports say that China’s stock holds as much as 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, almost 95 per cent of which would violate the INF Treaty if Beijing were a signatory.  However, the Treaty prohibits Washington from deploying short and intermediate range missiles on land near China as a deterrent (Ibid). It is not even clear if the American allies in Asia-Pacific such as Japan or South Korea would be willing to let such weapons come to the region (Ibid).  However, China appealed to the US and Russia to adhere to the Treaty. It warned that “scrapping the treaty would be the beginning of the collapse of the global arms control system. It’s highly likely a new arms race will start.”

The Global Times editorial says:

“Washington has been hyping the Russian threats in recent years, but Russia’s strategic deterrence is clearly weaker than in the Soviet era. The US has also complained about China’s development of missile capabilities. This is even more unreasonable. China’s nuclear deterrence isn’t comparable to that of the US and Russia. Portraying China’s military development as part of an “arms race,” the US is creating an excuse to suppress China’s legitimate build-up of its national defense. If the treaty is abolished, security risks will be reassessed and major powers will redefine what “security” is. Overall international relations will be implicated. Such a scenario is unfavorable to an end to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula and runs the risk of a rise in conflicts in other regions. As far as China is concerned, the US intends to make the INF treaty a multilateral agreement, which may become an excuse for Washington to exert pressure on Beijing. Without the restraints of the treaty, the US may intensify its deployment of offensive missiles and anti-missile systems around China, further increasing China’s strategic security challenges. Beijing will never accept the treaty becoming a multilateral agreement. It must reject any request from the US on the issue. Instead of relying too much on land-based missiles for national security, China must diversify its strategic nuclear deterrence. It’s an urgent task” (Global Times 2 February 2019).  

China had taken a similar stand even before. In the UN General Assembly meeting last year, the representative of China said the “Treaty is important, playing a crucial role in history and maintaining global stability.  Maintaining the INF Treaty is highly relevant.”  China said that “the countries concerned can honour their commitments and properly handle relevant issues through consultation.  China opposes any unilateral act of withdrawal.  Treaty multilateralization involves a host of legal issues.  Many countries have their own concerns about this and do not support Treaty multilateralization (UN, General Assembly 2018).

Obviously, the Trump administration, which has been pulling out of several international treaties during the last three years, on the ground of its opposition to multilateral arrangements that ‘threaten’ the American interests, is reversing its game strategy by withdrawing from a bilateral treaty that has tremendous international implications. While Trump seeks to have promoted more and more bilateral arrangements for international trade and commerce (2-person model), he seems to be fixed for multilateral options on questions of security and strategic balancing. In any case, his game-plan has apparently the larger objective of netting China within a new package and thereby setting a new ‘level playing field’ for a N-persons’ game. The end result is, the global strategic landscape will again witness the fear of an apocalypse of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).



Al Jazeera (2019): “‘Huge mistake’: Fears of arms race as US, Russia suspend INF pact,” 3 February, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/mistake-fears-arms-race-russia-suspend-inf-pact-190203152747235.html

Arms  Control Association (2019): “The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance,” 2 February , https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/INFtreaty

NATO (2019): “Statement on Russia’s failure to comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Issued by the North Atlantic Council, Brussels, 1 February 2019,” https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_162996.htm

Sputnik (2019): “Russia to React to US Exit From INF Treaty by Military-Technical Means – Lavrov,”

4 February , https://sputniknews.com/world/201902041072099247-russia-inf-treaty-lavrov-usa/


UN, General Assembly (2018): “General Assembly Rejects Resolution Calling for Strengthening Russian-United States Compliance with Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,’ 21 December, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/ga12116.doc.htm

US, Department of State (1987): “Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty), 8 December , https://www.state.gov/t/avc/trty/102360.htm

US, White House (2019a):” Statement from the President Regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,” 1 February,  https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-president-regarding-intermediate-range-nuclear-forces-inf-treaty/

US, White House (2019b): “President Donald J. Trump to Withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty,” 1 February, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-withdraw-united-states-intermediate-range-nuclear-forces-inf-treaty/

The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]


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