By W.J. Hennigan
February 1, 2019

The Trump Administration’s decision to withdraw from a major nuclear arms treaty with Russia could have serious long-term consequences, potentially reshaping the global nature of the nuclear threat from Europe to Asia.

On Friday, the Administration announced that the U.S. intends to withdraw the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing Russia’s violation of covertly developing and fielding a prohibited missile system that “poses a direct threat to our allies and troops abroad.”

“We have raised Russia’s noncompliance with Russian officials, including at the highest levels of government, more than 30 times, yet Russia continues to deny that its missile system is noncompliant and violates the treaty,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday. “Russia’s violation puts millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk. 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.”

The decision comes after years of arguing between the U.S. and Russia over whether specific weapons programs were in violation, though it received extra scrutiny from critics due to President Donald Trump’s repeated calls for a closer relationship with Russia.

News of the withdrawal has already had an effect. Defense stocks surged on the news, outpacing the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Meanwhile, arms control advocates were left wringing their hands on what the decision meant for the future of nuclear treaties that helped preserve peace since the Cold War.

A more serious realignment will come by this summer.

A post-INF world is now six months away, thanks to a grace period invoked by the treaty’s Article 15, which gives both countries time to reevaluate decisions on whether to walk way for good. When that deadline passes, it will reopen an era when ballistic and cruise missiles can be peppered on either side of the former Iron Curtain with cross-hairs targeting city capitals. A chance for a much larger deployment also now exists in Asia.

The treaty came about during the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union would manipulate each other’s nightmares of nuclear annihilation in order to maneuver for advantage in times of relative peace. The superpowers identified certain weapons deemed mutually menacing, and then worked to eliminate the threat altogether.

First signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, the INF treaty eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. It forced the superpowers to scrap more than 2,600 land-based missiles with ranges 310 to 3,420 miles — weapons considered destabilizing to the European continent because of their capability to launch a nuclear strike from anywhere without early warning.

The mutual fear of these weapons — which could be driven on a mobile launcher into a remote area, blasted off and strike their targets in less than six minutes — appears to no longer exist.

On Saturday, the State Department will send a formal diplomatic notice to Moscow of the United States’ intention to withdraw from the INF. It will start the six-month clock ticking, which can be stopped at any time if there’s an opportunity to reverse course. The U.S. wants Russia to destroy the missile, the Novator 9M729, and its launchers. Moscow has denied the missile violates the agreement since May of 2013.

Instead, the Kremlin has insisted that the U.S. is the one that’s in defiance of the agreement, saying certain interceptors on American missile defense systems have offensive capabilities. The U.S. has dismissed Russia’s allegation as false and a red herring.

So if nearly six years of diplomatic talks couldn’t salvage the INF, it’s unlikely that another six months will make a difference.

The Trump Administration began directly confronting the violation last year with $48 million in funding for development of its own treaty-busting missile. The research is allowed under the INF, and only breaches the deal if that missile is ever tested or deployed. The missile will not be built and ready for deployment in August, when the six-month period is up. Regardless, there is no indication that any European ally would want them in their country.

“The treaty is most consequential in Europe; it’s the place that was protected by the treaty,” said Ellen Tauscher, a former undersecretary of State for arms control and international security from 2009 to 2012. “The Europeans have a lot at risk here, and the international community at large should not want to see a return to Cold War tactics or deployments.”

Indeed, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization issued a statement Friday condemning Russia’s violation and stated the 29 nations “are firmly committed to the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation.”

Two senior Trump Administration officials, who spoke with media Friday on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged conversations with allies about potential countermeasures neither in the form of missile defense systems or INF-range missile batteries. However, the U.S. is “only looking at conventional options at this time,” one official said. “Nothing the United States is currently looking at is nuclear in character.”

The Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank, issued a statement saying that any new “U.S. intermediate-range missile deployments would cost billions of dollars, take years to complete, and are militarily unnecessary to defend NATO allies because existing weapons systems can already hold key Russian targets at risk.”

Still, the whole basis for signing the INF three decades ago was the destabilizing nature of the weapons. The ballistic missiles, the Russian SS-20 and American Pershing II, had such a short timeline between nuclear launch and strike that gave world leaders little time run for cover — let alone strategize about the right response. It also set off fierce debate in Europe, inside West Germany and elsewhere, with protesters taking to the streets against the missile deployments and the U.S. for escalating the arms race.

However, the potential fallout from leaving the INF goes beyond Europe, Many U.S. military officials have viewed United States’ adherence to the INF as a disadvantage with China, considering the country is not currently party to the INF. Beijing has more than 1,000 land-based missiles within INF range that could threaten U.S. and allies’ bases in the western Pacific and warships.

If the U.S. decided to strike China, it has a range of ways to do so. However, when freed from INF constraints, the U.S. may seek to position missiles in places like Guam or elsewhere, which would likely cause a counterbalancing maneuver from China.

In the arcane, often confounding world of nuclear diplomacy, unwinding one treaty could affect another. Withdrawing from the INF could have broader implications on other arms control agreements, such as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which is set to expire on Feb. 5, 2021.

The linchpin agreement limits each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed heavy bombers and ballistic missiles. It also includes a thorough monitoring and verification regime to help ensure compliance. If New START sunsets, it will be the first time in the effort to limit the strategic stockpiles in the U.S. and Russia since 1972.

Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com.

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