Trump frees Putin to openly restart nuclear arms race

Withdrawal from 1987 pact with Russia would see a new generation of lethal weapons developed and deployed in Europe, says

Trump frees Putin to openly restart nuclear arms race

Withdrawal from 1987 pact with Russia would see a new generation of lethal weapons developed and deployed in Europe, says David A Andelman.

US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev visit GovernorsIsland, New York Harbor, in December 1988. Picture: Bill Swersey/AFP/Getty
US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev visit GovernorsIsland, New York Harbor, in December 1988. Picture: Bill Swersey/AFP/Getty

IT may be the highest-stakes move of Donald Trump’s entire presidency: Unilaterally removing the US from yet another international treaty, this time with immediate and potentially existential consequences.

Trump’s announcement that Washington would withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia, a landmark 1987 agreement, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to remove nuclear weapons from Europe, eliminates whatever curbs may be left on the development and deployment of a new generation of lethal and more readily deployable nuclear arms.

Gone will be any restraints on Russian president Vladimir Putin from modernising and updating his nuclear arsenal, thereby reviving the nuclear arms race, at a time when new nuclear forces, North Korea and Iran, threaten the world and when new missile technologies are proliferating.

Trump’s ill-conceived and poorly thought-out action plays directly into Putin’s hands.

As much as the Russian leader may already be flouting the principles and provisions of that treaty, he can now do so with impunity and with none of the consequences of being labeled the transgressor.

Fortunately, since this was a treaty ratified by a two-thirds vote of the US senate, it cannot be formally ended without a similar two-thirds vote, which seems most improbable in today’s divided political environment.

Still, Trump can, in theory, begin violating the provisions of the treaty without any Senate action, which — if Russia keeps its threats to match it tit-for-tat — will have the equivalent impact of tearing up the document.

And the costs of a new nuclear arms race could be astronomical. The nonpartisan Arms Control Association has estimated that updates to the US nuclear arsenal would cost US taxpayers upwards of $1.2tn over the next 30 years.

Trump’s withdrawal from the INF treaty can only send chills up the spines of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Ukraine and Georgia, all former Soviet republics, which Putin would love to reel back into some newly constituted Russian empire.

Europeans, who will suddenly find themselves within range of the weapons previously banned by the treaty, can only be equally concerned.

The weapons in question include all shorter-range missiles with capabilities of 500km-1,000km and intermediate-range missiles with capabilities of 1,000km-5,500km, both nuclear- and conventional-armed. Some 2,692 were eliminated by 1991.

Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev

The origins of the INF treaty can be traced to the two-day Reagan-Gorbachev summit, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October, 1986. As it happens, I am the translator of a remarkable book on that meeting, An Impossible Dream: Reagan, Gorbachev and a World Without the Bomb, by French journalist-historian, Guillaume Serina.

To be published next year, it includes an introduction by Gorbachev and material obtained from the opening of a number of Kremlin archives, as well as the assistance of several of the surviving aides from both delegations, including the former Soviet leader himself.

At the time, Gorbachev surprised and stunned the Americans, when he proposed a total elimination of all nuclear arms by both super powers. It was a daring and unprecedented Hail Mary move.

But it would have required Reagan to give up his beloved Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the ill-fated and ill-conceived space weapons defence system, which never really worked. Reagan declined, but agreed to the more limited INF pact. (Gorbachev, now 87, has condemned the US withdrawal, with Russia’s Interfax news agency quoting him as saying: “Do they not understand in Washington what this could lead to?”) Inspections under this treaty were guaranteed for 10 years and ended officially in 2001.

Both sides largely respected its provisions in the years after, but in July, 2014, the Obama administration accused Russia of testing a prohibited, ground-launched cruise missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead with a range of some 2,000km.

When I visited the Baltic republics two years later, leading defence officials told me that while they had been aware of Russia’s capacities, they relied on its adherence to the INF’s treaty provisions to guarantee their security.

Still, last year, the Pentagon publicly accused Russia for the first time of deploying the Novator 9M729, referred to by Nato as an SSC-8 missile. This led, last December, to a series of sanctions against Russian companies that had been involved in the development and production of the weapon.

The Russians insisted the missile’s range and fixed-base deployment in Kaliningrad did not breach the treaty. Still, with the Russian enclave nestled between Nato members Lithuania and Poland, the development of the SSC-8 did raise some serious issues. None of these are solved by Trump’s threatened unilateral withdrawal from the INF treaty.

What the world needs now is more, not less, arms control. China, not a signatory of the INF treaty, has a range of missiles that would be banned under its provisions; US officials cited China’s arms build-up in the Pacific as a central reason for scuttling the Russia pact and pressing ahead with expanding the American arsenal.

Mr Bolton has already met foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and will later meet Vladimir Putin (AP)
Mr Bolton has already met foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and will later meet Vladimir Putin (AP)

This is a terrible, potentially lethal idea. Trump needs to find a way to reel in these nations to such an agreement, not just arbitrarily pull out and torpedo it.

US national security advisor John Bolton is currently on a visit to Moscow, where, on Monday, he formally told his Russian counterpart of Trump’s plans.

A diplomat who has rarely seen a treaty that he does not want to scuttle or a battle that he is not prepared to fight, Bolton is unlikely to consider any talks with Russia of the sort that launched the INF accord three decades ago.

Yet that sort of deft and intelligent diplomacy may be the only real route to security in this increasingly unstable world.

David A. Andelman, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and CBS News, is visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. @DavidAndelman

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