US withdraws from INF Treaty, NATO plans ‘measured response’

On the 2 August the United States announced its formal withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a cornerstone of European security for the past three decades. The 1987 agreement, which bans land-based, medium-range missiles in Europe, has been under increasing strain as the United States and NATO accused Russia of violating its terms. Russia denies any violations, but the Trump administration in February announced its intent to withdraw from the treaty, starting a six month countdown which ended on the 2 August. In a statement issued at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "Russia is solely responsible for the treaty's demise”, and that "Russia failed to return to full and verified compliance through the destruction of its noncompliant missile system”.

While blaming Russia, the United States has also cited a threat from China, which was not a signatory to the treaty, as another reason for abandoning it. Many Chinese missiles are of intermediate range, and Washington plans to start testing a new class of intermediate-range missiles this summer that are intended to counter China—although the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is refusing to approve a $96m budget for further research and development on the missiles.

At its June ministerial meeting (see NATO Watch Briefing No. 68), NATO agreed ways to deter Russia from launching the disputed medium-range, nuclear-capable missile known as Novator 9M729. Although few precise details were announced, these included options such as enhanced military exercises, surveillance and air and missile defences. After the United States announced its withdrawal from the treaty, NATO reiterated in a statement that its response would be measured and only involve conventional weapon: “NATO will respond in a measured and responsible way to the significant risks posed by the Russian 9M729 missile ... We have agreed a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference there would be “no rash moves” by the alliance and “would not mirror what Russia does”. “We don’t want a new arms race,” Stoltenberg said. While Washington is said to be only considering conventional, not nuclear weapons, in any possible response, more flights over Europe by US aircraft capable of carrying nuclear warheads is apparently an option under consideration.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the INF treaty had been terminated “at the initiative of the US”. Sergei Ryabkov, the Deputy Foreign Minister, urged the United States to implement a moratorium on missile deployments. Stoltenberg said the moratorium proposal was “not a credible offer” because Russia has deployed the disputed missiles for several years.

On the 1 August, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that with the collapse of the INF treaty, “the world will lose an invaluable brake on nuclear war. This will likely heighten, not reduce, the threat posed by ballistic missiles”. The INF treaty was seen as one of two key arms control agreements between Russia and the United States – the other being the New START treaty, which keeps the nuclear arsenals of both countries well below their Cold War peak. President Trump has not yet committed to extending or replacing New START, which he has described as “just another bad deal” made by the Obama administration. His national security adviser, John Bolton, said in June that it’s unlikely the administration will agree to extend the treaty, which expires in 2021.