The Domino Effect: America’s Withdrawal from the INF Treaty and Its Ramifications
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Andrey Kortunov

Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Moscow, Russia





Director General
ORCID 0000-0002-3897-6434
Scopus AuthorID 24782993000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: +7 (495) 225 6283
Address: 1 Bolshaya Yakimanka Str., Moscow 119180, Russia

Valdai Discussion Club

The United States has launched the procedure of withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty). Russia, in turn, also suspended its participation in the INF. According to Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian Council on International Affairs, the United States’ decision can create a “domino effect” in the nuclear arms control: by quitting the INF Treaty, Washington puts in question the prolongation of the New START agreement, and without the New START, there will be a broader issue of maintaining the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime.

Three levels of argumentation

There are three circumstances that can explain why the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty. Perhaps someone from the American military was really very concerned about the development of the Avangard missile system, which they thought posed a potential threat to the balance of forces in the European theatre. At the same time, it is not so important whether this new system falls under the restrictions of the INF Treaty or not. A similar situation arose at the time of the signing of the treaty in 1987, when the United States demanded the elimination of the Oka system by the Soviet Union. And although the Oka system range did not fall under the terms of the agreement, the Soviet leadership, as a gesture of goodwill, decided to eliminate this very promising development project. Perhaps now the US military wanted to repeat this experience thirty years ago, when a system that they did not like could be eliminated, even if there is no formal reason for this. This is the first level of argumentation.

The second level of argumentation is connected with the fact that the INF Treaty limits missiles of only two parties – Russia and the USA. Meanwhile, the technology of medium- and shorter-range missiles is being vigorously developed in many other countries, primarily in China, where these missiles form the basis of its strategic potential. Of course, the Americans spoke about this, and quite frankly: they are concerned about the growing military power of China, the ballistic programmes of other countries (for example, Iran) and therefore consider the INF Treaty unjust.

Finally, the third level of argumentation is that the Trump administration is extremely suspicious of any agreement that in one way or another restricts the United States in the field of security, and even more toward those agreements that were signed before Donald Trump came to power. This is not only the INF Treaty, but also the New START Treaty, which raises big questions and doubts about how good the treaty is and whether it should be renewed at all. This reflects the philosophy of the administration, its emphasis on complete independence on strategic issues and its unwillingness to restrict the freedom of manoeuvre.

These three main circumstances influenced the decision of the United States. But one cannot disregard the reasons connected with the internal political struggle. By quitting the treaty, Trump sent a message to his internal political opponents that he is a much tougher politician towards Russia than, for example, Obama, or that accusations of his softness towards the Kremlin are completely unfounded.

Consequences of the US leaving the INF Treaty

The consequences of the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty should be divided into military and political ones. As to the military consequences, it should be understood that at the moment the United States has no technological, productive and financial capabilities for the operational deployment of a large number of medium and shorter-range missiles. One can, of course, assume the existence of some programs for moving sea-based or air-launched missiles to land, but this is a rather pointless exercise, it will not work for the US. In addition, there are political restrictions, that is, in order to deploy these missiles in Europe, the consent of the allies is required, and this agreement is not so easy to get.

Therefore, the military consequences of the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty will not be immediate, but will reveal themselves within few years. Until that time, the United States will actually comply with the terms of the treaty, as it was in other cases – for example, when it withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. The Americans quit, but they did not create an efficient missile defence system: they actually continued to implement it. And in order to create a fundamentally new system of medium-range missiles, it will take at least several years – 5–10 years, and this will, of course, also require appropriate budget decisions, and much more.

The political consequences of the United States’ withdrawal from the treaty are already obvious and will continue to manifest themselves. In the field of nuclear arms control, the US decision can create a “domino effect”: if it abandons the INF Treaty, it puts under question the New START treaty prolongation, and without the New START, there will be a broader issue of maintain the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regime. Also, we should not forget about the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which the United States, by the way, has not ratified.

Thus, a chain reaction can be launched that will lead to the collapse of not only the bilateral system of strategic weapons control, but also to the erosion of the entire international regime. This will create new risks and problems, and it will be very difficult to return to any international or bilateral agreements. Although that is possible.

Conclusion of a new agreement

If we assume that we are turning this page and put a fat blot on it, starting a new chapter of international arms control, then we should recognize that the new treaty should be different: rather multilateral than bilateral, it should take into account not so much quantitative, but qualitative parameters of weapons systems, have completely different control mechanisms. We have to go back to the beginning and see how to build this mechanism.

It is already clear that it will be difficult to negotiate legally binding agreements – it is difficult to imagine Congress ratifying any agreement with Russia.

If we talk about China, then a tripartite agreement similar to the INF Treaty is unacceptable for Beijing, because then it will have to destroy two-thirds – or, maybe, more – of its missile potential, which China will not accept. But if we talk with China about medium-range and shorter-range missiles of all types of deployment, China may have a certain interest, because here the United States does have a certain advantage.

One can agree on everything, but this will require, first, political will (and it is not entirely clear whether it exists in Washington or not), and, second, considerable time and patience, because China and other nuclear powers must be drawn into this process gradually and very delicately, since their nuclear potential is much weaker than the potentials of Russia and the United States are. They will always refer to this imbalance and say: “you will first reduce your missiles to our levels, and then we may join somehow”.

Negotiations on a new treaty will require considerable diplomatic skill, time, and perseverance. There can be no quick success here. The Trump administration has such an attitude that a victory is needed here and now. And this is the problem.

Valdai Discussion Club