What Trump’s pullout from INF treaty means

(Mikhail Gorbachev & Ronald Reagan signing INF treaty, Washington, December 8, 1987)

President Donald Trump’s confirmation that the US is terminating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) with Russia will be regarded as a defining moment in international security. The INF, which was signed by then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington in December 1987, has been a flagship of the disarmament process leading to the elimination of around 2700 short and medium range ballistic missiles and preventing a US-Russia nuclear standoff in Europe.

A first-rate crisis is appearing in nuclear arms limitations and reduction processes. Now, let it be clarified this is not a temper tantrum by Trump by stems from the US policy to place accent on developing new nuclear weapons and aiming at securing a strategic dominance in the global arena. It was during the Obama administration, in 2014, that the US first alleged that Russia violated the INF treaty, but despite persistent requests from Moscow to provide substantiation of the allegation or at least to discuss the discord, Washington failed to respond.

The US has vaguely pointed finger at the index of a Russian missile research project, but Moscow has refuted it pointing out that the US can easily see on its satellite images during field tests that these charges are totally unfounded and not substantiated by either the technical characteristics of the launcher that allegedly is at variance with the INF Treaty or in-flight telemetry data.

The plain truth is that it no longer suits the US to be constrained by the INF treaty in the emerging New Cold War conditions where it has bracketed Russia and China as “revisionist power” whom it must counter. In fact, contrary to the INF Treaty, Washington has already deployed launchers at the US antimissile base in Romania and Poland, whose specifications enable them to launch not only interceptor missiles but also strike missiles like Tomahawks.

One urgent compulsion for the US today is that the need arises for it in the downstream of the 2017 decision by Japanese government to buy two Aegis Ashore systems, as the deployment of the system in Japan will be a violation of the INF obligations – although the deployment will be in Asia-Pacific.

Fundamentally, the US objective is nothing else than attaining nuclear superiority, which has been an elusive dream through the Cold War era. In the present context, Russian conventional forces are not a match for the US’ capability but nuclear deterrence gives Russia the status of a great power and enables it to maintain global strategic balance. Equally, China’s growing nuclear capabilities are an added factor in the American calculus. Simply put, the jettisoning of the INF will free the hands of the US to develop new weapon systems and to make large-scale deployments along the borders of Russia and China to contain them.

Russia has military-technical capabilities to respond to the challenge posed by US walking out of IMF Treaty. The hypersonic missile that it has developed is an example. Besides, Russia can also respond by deploying intermediate- and short-range missiles at its borders. To be sure, all this will directly affect European security and it may even create, hopefully, a convergence of interests between Russia and European countries to preserve the INF. But the US may circumvent such a possibility by wearing down the European opposition by moving the discussion onto the multilateral NATO format.

Most importantly, the US pullout from INF treaty may bring the roof down on the New START treaty of 2010 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In fact, the likelihood is high that the New START treaty may not be renewed by 2021, as is required, or that the NPT can survive. All in all, what is on cards is the frightening scenario of a seamless, uncontrollable nuclear race – and the growing likelihood of a nuclear conflict.

Without doubt, the stakes are very high for India. The impact of the US decision on INF on the Asia-Pacific security would vitally affect Indian interests, especially in the context of the US-China rivalry where Japan (with which India has striven to forge a strong relationship) also happens to be a crucial participant. The US and Japanese pressure on India will increase to be ‘on the right side of history’ – that is, by becoming part of the US-led alliance system against China. Japan and Australia are figuring as the US’ main partners in the Indo-Pacific.

On the contrary, China will deepen its military cooperation with Russia and the two countries may be edging toward an alliance. (See my blog Military cooperation is the highlight and pillar of China-Russia strategic cooperation.) Ironically, the US will be achieving what it all along wanted, namely, injecting ‘bloc mentality’ among the countries of the Indo-Pacific, which would help consolidate its long-term presence in the region. All this means that unlike in the Cold War era, Asia is inexorably turning into the principal theatre of big-power rivalries.