Linking INF to New Start: Whither Arms Control?

12/8/1987 President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room

Two recent developments, both linked, on the arms control front are worth reflecting a little bit on. The thing that links them is the apparent Russian violation of the INF Treaty.

Republican hawks in Congress seek to link renewal of the New START treaty to continued Russian compliance with the INF Treaty, and the second, which is potentially alarming, are calls from Republicans for the US to withdraw from the INF Treaty all together.

There is something that is missing from these two stories, namely details of the alleged Russian violation. No public revelation of the alleged Russian violation has been made, but some most unfortunate potential responses to it are being publicly discussed.

So far as we are aware, the Russian violation consists of the deployment of a land based version of the Kalibr cruise missile but no formal public details have been provided, and the Russians themselves deny that they are in violation of the Treaty.

The first response, linking INF to New Start, will leave little remaining of the arms control processes that ended the cold war, and which blunted some of the more excessive absurdities of strategic nuclear overkill. The two should not be linked in this way, and certainly not without a detailed public airing of the alleged violation.

The second, wholesale withdraw from the INF Treaty, would lead to serious consequences for strategic stability. The return of US intermediate nuclear missiles to Europe, especially ballistic missiles akin to the Pershing II, would be unfortunate because of the low flight times, and so low warning times, that strategic planners in Moscow would be confronted with. This will mean that Russian strategic nuclear forces would be put on a very high rate of alert, which would lead to a “use them or lose them” dynamic in a crisis. That applies to an accidental crisis arising from technological glitches or a genuine political crisis between Moscow and Beijing.

We escaped a nuclear war by a whisker in 1983, and one of the drivers of the crisis in 1983 was Soviet fear of the short flight times of the Pershing II intermediate range missile.

Should we get a repeat of the Euromissiles crisis of yesteryear there would be one important difference. Namely, NATO intermediate range missiles targeted at Moscow would be so much closer to the Russian border than they were in the 1980s.

Before we discuss what ought to be done about the alleged Russian INF violation we should learn precisely how it is that Moscow is in violation.

More analysis to come.