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The U.S. is about to withdraw from a crucial arms control treaty with Russia, sparking fears that a new nuclear arms race is on the way.
The U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signaled six months ago, when the U.S. and NATO accused Russia of flagrantly violating the accord for years.
The Kremlin has denied the accusation, and claimed the U.S. is simply using it as a pretext to start a new arms race. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday that the U.S. and NATO should follow Russia’s lead and declare a moratorium on the deployment of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles as Russia did in February.
For its part, the U.S. says it will begin testing a new class of missiles in the coming weeks, but officials say the new missiles are designed to counter the growing threat from China rather than any threat posed by Moscow.
The collapse of the INF means there is just a single formal restraint left on the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, which between them possess more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons — more than 8,000 warheads.
Experts now fear the Trump administration is set to let the New Start Treaty expire as well, which would push both sides into a new arms race.
“The United States and Russia are now in a state of strategic instability; an accident or mishap could set off a cataclysm,” former Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and former Sen. Sam Nunn write in an upcoming piece for Foreign Affairs. “Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril.”
The end of the treaty is the loss of “an invaluable brake on nuclear war," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told reporters Thursday. “This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles.”
What is the INF?
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. It bans missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles.
The U.S. claimed that the Russians broke the pact, which bans both sides from stationing short- and intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe, when they developed a new missile, the Novator 9M729 (NATO calls it the SSC-8).
The Kremlin denies the allegation.
How did we get here?
The U.S. withdrawal from the INF has been a long time coming.
Back in 2014, then-U.S. President Barack Obama accused Russia of breaching the treaty, claiming Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile. Obama resisted pulling out of the pact after European leaders said doing so could kickstart a new arms race.
But last year, the U.S. accused Russia of being in breach of the treaty, and NATO sided with the U.S.
In December, Washington gave Moscow a 60-day deadline to come back into compliance with the treaty and when it didn’t, Trump announced the U.S. would formally withdraw from the treaty on August 2.
What about New Start?
The final arms treaty in place between the U.S. and Russia, New Start, was signed by Obama in 2010. It limits strategic nuclear warheads deployed by the U.S. and Russia to 1,550 each.
The Trump administration has been dismissive of the treaty, and on Tuesday National Security Adviser John Bolton said it was “unlikely to be extended” when it expires in February 2021.
“Why extend the flawed system just to say you have a treaty?” Bolton asked rhetorically.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the Senate with the aim of urging Trump to extend the New Start treaty until 2026, unless it can be shown that Russia is in material breach of the treaty, or a new agreement is signed which “provides equal or greater constraints, transparency, and verification measures.”
What about China?
Some experts believe that the U.S. withdrawal from the INF paves the way for it to develop weapons to counter what is seen as a growing threat from Beijing. China has invested heavily in its military in recent years and some see it as a greater long-term strategic rival than Russia.
“China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a recent trip to Europe.
But despite all its investment, China is still playing catch-up: the Federation of American Scientists says China's arsenal is a small fraction of the size of Russia’s and America's. Additionally, China’s nuclear weapons are not operationally deployed, meaning its warheads are stored separately from its missiles — unlike the nuclear weapons of the U.S. and Russia.
Trump, however, has used the end of the INF, and the imminent demise of New Start, to propose a new, all-encompassing arms deal that would include China.
“I think we are going to end up making a deal with Russia where we have some kind of arms control because all we are doing is adding on to what we don’t need and they are too. And China is trying to catch us both,” Trump told C-SPAN on Tuesday. Beijing says it has no interest in such a deal.
What happens next?
Now that it’s about to be free from the restrictions of the treaty, the Pentagon is expected to test a ground-launched cruise missile in the coming weeks. The U.S. will aim to test an intermediate-range ballistic missile in November, officials told Reuters.
Both of these tests would be of conventional weapons, not nuclear weapons.
However, finding funding for any tests beyond those two could be difficult. The Democrat-controlled House has already declined the Trump administration’s request of about $96 million for the development of the missiles in the House version of a fiscal-year 2020 budget and defense policy bill.
What are the experts saying?
Proliferation experts and critics of the Trump administration are worried that the removal of restrictions on nuclear weapons is pushing global powers into a new and highly dangerous arms race.
“Arms control has withered, and communication channels have closed,” write Moniz and Nunn, who are co-chairs of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Outdated Cold War nuclear postures have persisted alongside new threats in cyberspace and dangerous advances in military technology, soon to include hypersonic weaponry, which will travel at more than five times the speed of sound.”
Experts say the threat extends beyond the U.S. and Russia.
Last month, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told the BBC that the Russian missiles that were in “clear violation of the treaty,” were nuclear-capable, mobile, very hard to detect, and could reach European cities within minutes.
Cover: President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)