Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Friday that the United States will be withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, a landmark arms control bill signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during the Cold War.
The withdrawal follows months of dispute between NATO (which includes the United States) and Russia. The United States has accused Russia of persistently violating the pact by deploying nuclear-capable weapons banned under the INF treaty. Last December all 29 NATO members voiced their full support for the accusations, and the Trump administration gave Russia a 60-day ultimatum to comply with the treaty.
“Russia’s violations puts millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk,” Pompeo said in a statement on Friday. “It aims to put the United States at a military disadvantage and it undercuts the chances of moving our bilateral relationship in a better direction. It’s our duty to respond appropriately.”
“We’ve provided Russia with an ample window of time to mend its ways and for Russia to honor its commitments. Tomorrow that time runs out,” Pompeo continued. “The United States will therefore suspend its obligations under the INF treaty, effective February 2… Russia has jeopardized the United States’ security interests and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
The INF required the United States and Russia to eliminate ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (or 310-3,420 miles). When it was first conceived during the Cold War, the idea was that the treaty would reduce the number of smaller, more “tactical” nuclear weapon systems in Europe, thereby reducing the chance of a full-scale nuclear war beginning due to accident, miscalculation, or madness.
The withdrawal from the INF treaty has coupled with two other disturbing changes under the Trump administration that could lead to a new nuclear arms race and lower the threshold. Last January, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for the introduction of newer “low-yield” nuclear weapons, including a new type of warhead and cruise missile, which would theoretically create more “flexible” deterrence options.
For perspective, a modern “low-yield” weapon is roughly equivalent to the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima, which would still have enough destructive power to destroy everything in Manhattan between Central Park and Greenwich Village. This year, those news weapons started rolling off U.S. production lines. Both Russia and China are suspected to have developed similar weapons for their arsenals.
Experts however have warned that lowering the threshold for nuclear weapons use with “low-yield” nukes simply increases the chances of a full-out nuclear exchange. “There’s nothing about an incoming ballistic missile warning that would tell a country that it’s a low-yield nuke,” Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, previously told ThinkProgress. “How would they know? They’d react as if it was the worst-case scenario.”
European leaders have also expressed serious concern about the collapse of the INF, and how it could turn Europe back into a potential setting for nuclear confrontation at the risk of millions of European lives. “What we definitely don’t want to see is our continent going back to being a battlefield or a place where other super-powers confront themselves,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters on Friday. “This belongs to a faraway history.”
At the same time as the Trump administration pushes forward with new nuclear weapons plans, it has also shown disdain for the collective defensive agreement (known as Article Five) which is the bedrock of the NATO alliance. Trump has consistently derided NATO allies for perceived “freeloading”.
Last month, the New York Times reported that Trump had asked his aides several times in 2018 why the United States can’t just withdraw from NATO. During the 2016 Republican National Convention, he said he would only honor the collective defense of NATO allies in the Baltic “if they fulfill their obligations to us”. When asked by Tucker Carlson whether the United States would, hypothetically, get into a war to defend the NATO country of Montenegro in eastern Europe, Trump said that he’d “asked the same question” of his advisers.