The US decision to suspend participation in a nuclear arms treaty long violated by Russia has triggered a wave of concern and fed into a decision to keep the iconic Doomsday Clock as close to the symbolic point of annihilation as it has been since the height of the Cold War.
Analysts and critics said the US decision, announced Friday, risks triggering an arms race that could extend beyond Europe, has deepened fissures in the strained global arms control structure and heightened the chances of military conflict.
They point to growing tensions between the US and China and Russia, the unresolved negotiations with an unpredictable North Korea and a new American hostility to multilateral pacts that fueled Washington’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal. Underlying these developments, they say, is a US and Russian drive to modernize their nuclear stockpiles even as they float doctrines that normalize using the most destructive weapons on earth.
“This is a massive mistake,” said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, of the US announcement Friday.
Risk of an arms race
Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador who is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, noted that “although the US withdrawal will not take effect for another six months, today marks the effective end of the INF Treaty, the only nuclear arms agreement to ban an entire class of missiles.”
“The loss of the treaty creates a real possibility of an unpredictable and unconstrained US-Russian arms race in Europe and, potentially, in Northeast Asia as well,” Veshbow said.
US officials rejected criticism, pointing out that they have tried in over 30 diplomatic engagements to get Russia to comply with the treaty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, asked about the dangers of an arms race Friday, pointed at Moscow.
“The Russians are in violation of the agreement,” Pompeo said. “They have begun to move towards that risk that you actually just identified.”
Moscow vehemently denies the US and Europe charge that Russia’s development of the Novator 9M729, a land-based cruise missile, violates the INF treaty. On Friday, the Kremlin lobbed accusations back at Washington, saying the US wanted to develop weapons that violate the treaty and is using Russia as scapegoat.
The ground-based nuclear tipped cruise missiles covered by the bilateral agreement can fly between 310 to 3,100 miles, making them mostly a threat to Europe. Even as European governments expressed support for the US conclusion that Russia has been violating the 1987 treaty for years, officials privately expressed their concern about the treaty dying.
Already, the White House is signaling the steps it will take. A senior White House official tells CNN that if Russia doesn’t reverse course, it will ultimately see US missiles tested and deployed in Europe.
While it could be years before the US would place new missile systems, the official said that is the direction the Trump administration is headed in.
Moscow will likely try to use the US decision against Washington, many said.
Russia claiming Washington is the aggressor
“Russia will continue diplomatic efforts to show that the US is an aggressive actor and is undermining global security with its move,” said Mark Simakovsky, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Iran was quick to make that point, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif taking to Twitter to suggest any deal with the Trump administration is worthless. “Any deal with US govt is not worth the ink,” he said in a tweet.
Those wary of the US decision to suspend participation in the Treaty flagged the possibility it could lead to new Russian or American deployment of long-banned missiles, feeding into a broader trend of destabilizing global developments.
“Brash leaders, intense diplomatic disputes, and regional instabilities combine to create an international context in which nuclear dangers are all too real,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists said in a statement.
The group, which maintains the Doomsday Clock, said the Trump administration’s INF announcement played a part in its decision to leave the clock at two minutes to midnight - matching last year’s record and keeping it as close to midnight as it has been since 1953.
The Bulletin and other critics noted that US negotiations with North Korea have not produced any concrete progress in constraining or rolling back Pyongyang’s nuclear program or its drive to hone its nuclear and missile capabilities, leaving northeast Asia vulnerable.
They point, as well, to the Trump administration’s most recent Nuclear Posture Review that argues Russia has adopted a highly escalatory nuclear doctrine. In response, the Review said the US must modernize in its own nuclear stockpile in order to make the weapons more easily usable in a wide array of circumstances.
They argue the Trump administration undermined the Iran deal, seen by many as a nuclear non-proliferation success, increasing the possibility of a clash with Tehran. And they point to Trump’s hostility to NATO, the UN and other structures that have underpinned global security since World War II.
Patricia Lewis, the research director for International Security at the British think tank Chatham House, echoed many analysts when she noted that national security adviser John Bolton is “renowned for his disdain of arms control treaties” and multilateral institutions, such as the UN or NATO, that he believes limit US power. Many wondered if other international agreements might soon fall as well.
“It gives me great concern,” said Thomas Countryman, a former acting undersecretary of state for ams control and international security under Obama.
Given the outcome of the other deals which Bolton dislikes, including the Iran deal and now the INF Treaty, Countryman worries that because Bolton “has been equally hostile towards the New Start Treaty,” a US-Russia nuclear arms reduction treaty that expires in 2021, it may soon face the same fate.
A second senior administration official said some might take the characterization of Bolton as a hitman of nuclear arms agreements as a “badge of honor.”
And administration allies have pointed out Russia’s flagrant violations of any number of international treaties require push back, as Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican did at a Senate hearing this week on worldwide threats.
“I believe that both this and the past administration has said that Russia is violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapon Convention, the Vienna Document, and is no longer adhering to the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives,” Cotton asked CIA Director Gina Haspel, who told him he was correct.
Even so, Countryman and others said that withdrawal from the INF Treaty is “premature” and will create “some difficulties between the US and its European allies, not today but down the road.”
“I would hope that both sides could work on some means of verification,” he said of the US and Russia, but like many, suggested he didn’t believe either side is willing to make that happen right now.
Countryman added that “we should be focused on the longer-term implications” and in the meantime, “have a serious debate in Congress about the right response” and whether the US is still committed to nuclear nonproliferation.