Oct 22, 2018

Trump faults Russia for INF treaty pullout but did little to save it

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton at the Kremlin on June 27, 2018. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

President Trump has announced his intent to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits U.S. and Russian land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. 

The big picture: Trump does have grounds to withdraw — Moscow has violated the treaty by deploying the 9M729 intermediate-range cruise missile — but doing so now is a mistake. Washington had unused tools that could have been employed to encourage Russian compliance.

Military pressure is one approach Russia would surely have noticed. The U.S. could have deployed conventionally armed Joint Air-to-Surface Strike missiles to Europe and increased the presence of warships carrying conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles in European waters. These steps could have been taken quickly and without violating U.S. treaty obligations.

Trump could also have turned up the political heat on the Kremlin, by urging NATO leaders and other allies such as Japan to take up concerns about Russia's treaty violations directly with President Putin.

Would these steps have achieved a change in Russian policy? Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, we will not know if Trump decides to abandon the agreement. It is not evident that the administration tried hard to save the treaty, perhaps because National Security Advisor John Bolton has long favored ditching it.

Why it matters: Withdrawal entails significant costs for U.S. and Western security. Russia will be free to deploy without constraint the 9M729 and other land-based intermediate-range missiles, for which the U.S. military currently has no counterpart. The decision has already sparked controversy within NATO, with officials in Berlin, Rome and Paris criticizing Trump’s announcement. Finally, absent a strong public case regarding the Russian violation — that information is highly classified — Washington will widely be seen as responsible for the INF Treaty’s demise.

Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry fellow at Stanford and nonresident scholar with the Brookings Institution.

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