The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was the first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of the US and Russia. “Trust buy verify” was Reagan’s catchphrase to describe the treaty. In the early 1980s, Soviet deployment of intermediate ranged weapons such as the SS-20 missile lead to US deployment of Pershing II missiles as well as Ground Launched Cruise Missiles. The extremely short time of flight of SS-20 and Pershing II was seen as destabilizing, and the theory of a limited nuclear exchange in Europe being limited to Europe was widely discredited. By eliminating intermediate range forces, with both the Soviet Union and the US instead relying on intercontinental forces, the Mutual Assured Destruction theory of deterrence was actually strengthened. This led to a measurable decrease in tension between the superpowers.
With the successful implementation of the INF treaty, sufficient trust between the superpowers was built that allowed other treaties to move forward, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement.
For many years, INF has been held aloft by both the political right and the left as a model of successful negotiation by the West with the East.
The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior American officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Obama to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a letter on Monday.
It is the most serious allegation of an arms control treaty violation that the Obama administration has leveled against Russia and adds another dispute to a relationship already burdened by tensions over the Kremlin’s support for separatists in Ukraine and its decision to grant asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.
At the heart of the issue is the 1987 treaty that bans American and Russian ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles. That accord, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, helped seal the end of the Cold War and has been regarded as a cornerstone of American-Russian arms control efforts.
And why shouldn’t Putin disregard the treaty? The Obama administration has already conceded that they will do little or nothing to punish Russia.
As a practical matter, the US cannot simply reinvent the Pershing II and GLCM systems. First, that would be enormously expensive. Secondly, we would have to find a European ally willing to host such systems. Even in the coldest days of the Cold War, it was extraordinarily unpopular with large swaths of the European electorate. Today there simply would be no western European nation willing to host such weapons. And it’s not like the Obama administration would be willing to put forth the diplomatic effort to convince any that hosting them would be in their best interests.
There is on possible reply the US could make that, while expensive, is quite feasible. After 1992, the US removed nuclear weapons from the inventory of all but the strategic missile submarine force. The nuclear tipped weapons such as the Tomahawk were retired.
But with some infrastructure effort, and a good deal of expensive training, US naval forces could quickly establish a credible intermediate range nuclear threat to Russia.
Another possibility is that the Army Tactical Missile System, a short ranged guided ballistic missile system, could have its range extended. It was deliberately designed to fall well short of the 500km range threshold of INF. Coupled with a program to develop a nuclear warhead, it could provide a response to continued Russian development of intermediate ranged ballistic missile systems.
Neither system would be particularly technically challenging. Only politically.