In Brief

What the INF Treaty’s Collapse Means for Nuclear Proliferation

The collapse of the Cold War–era nuclear arms treaty signals trouble for U.S.-Russia relations, European security, and nonproliferation efforts.

On Friday, the United States is set to withdraw from a Cold War–era agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, that banned Washington and Moscow from using certain types of missiles. The end of the treaty could spark a new nuclear arms race.

What’s in the treaty?

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Signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the INF Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

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These weapons systems are considered particularly destabilizing because the missiles can reach their targets within ten minutes, giving little warning and time for decision-making and, consequently, raising the specter of miscalculation.

The INF Treaty required the destruction of existing systems and resulted in the dismantling of 2,692 missiles—1,846 by Russia and 846 by the United States. It included verification requirements that laid the groundwork for future arms reduction treaties.  

The landmark agreement launched a two-decade-long process of major nuclear weapons reductions by the United States and Russia. It led to a series of strategic arms reduction treaties and the historic decrease in nuclear stockpiles globally from a peak of seventy thousand in 1986 to just under fifteen thousand today.

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A line chart shows an increase in global nuclear weapons stockpiles with a high of nearly 70,000 in the 1980s and a swift decrease after that.

Why is the United States withdrawing?

Earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump said the United States would terminate the treaty because of Russian noncompliance. U.S. officials claimed that Russia breached the treaty by deploying systems for an intermediate-range missiles known as the SSC-8.

President Barack Obama’s administration first voiced concerns about Russian violations in 2013, and a year later, Obama sent Russian President Vladimir Putin a letter urging discussions. Both the Obama and Trump administrations communicated with Russia more than thirty times over the issue, but to no avail.

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In response to the United States’ announcement, Putin said his country would suspend its INF obligations as well. Russian officials charged that the United States had also violated the treaty, though Washington and its allies called those charges spurious. 

Trump also raised concerns about China’s missiles, which are not constrained by the agreement even though an estimated 95 percent [PDF] are in the INF range. But the majority of these Chinese missiles are fitted with conventional, not nuclear, warheads, and the United States and Russia possess more than 90 percent of global nuclear stockpiles, far exceeding China’s capabilities.

How will this affect security in Europe?

The treaty’s collapse diminishes European security and raises the prospect of the region returning to the hair-trigger instability of the 1980s. Russia’s intermediate-range missiles could make nuclear escalation between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and Russia more likely during conflict.

Even in a world without the INF Treaty, NATO says it has no intention of deploying new land-based nuclear systems. But it is considering other defense measures, including intelligence enhancements and conventional capabilities, to counter post-INF Russian deployments.

Will this spark a new nuclear arms race?

Since the treaty’s signing, the United States and Russia each reduced their nuclear stockpiles by 80 percent. Those historic achievements are now at risk.

A new round of nuclear weapons competition is already well underway, driven by the fast-paced technology revolution, rising U.S.-Russia tensions, and China’s military modernization. On top of that, nonproliferation efforts are wavering, as North Korea expands its nuclear capabilities, the Iran nuclear agreement unravels, and other nuclear powers remain outside control regimes.

The treaty’s demise foreshadows the potential expiration in 2021 of another treaty, New START, which brought the United States and Russia to historically low levels of deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

At a time when robust and innovative arms control efforts are needed to cover unconstrained systems and new technologies, the United States and Russia are moving in the opposite direction. But some progress can still be achieved. As a first step, both countries should extend New START by five years, which would not require further reductions but maintain past ones. Furthermore, the United States should vigilantly pursue bilateral discussions with both Russia and China to decrease the probability of miscalculation. These talks should also address the destabilizing impact of advanced technologies.  

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