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6 Questions About An Arms Control Treaty On The Rocks

President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the White House East Room on December 8, 1987.
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President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the White House East Room on December 8, 1987.

Christmas shopping was in full tilt the day Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sat down at the White House alongside Ronald Reagan to sign what seemed a harbinger of the end of the Cold War: the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

"Trust, but verify," intoned the American president to his Soviet counterpart.

That trust proffered in a season of giving is now collapsing.

"We're the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we've honored the agreement," President Trump told reporters in Nevada on Saturday. "But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we're going to terminate the agreement. We're gonna pull out."

Herewith six questions and answers about the INF Treaty.

1. What does the INF Treaty actually do?

It outlaws, for both the U.S. and Russia, all land-launched nuclear weapons capable of reaching targets between 310 and 3,400 miles away. It required the inspection and destruction of that entire category of nuclear weapons, thousands of them. Many had been deployed along the periphery of Eastern Europe, which meant they would take only eight minutes to travel to their targets compared to the half-hour intercontinental ballistic missiles would take. That would leave little time to decide on a response, and both of these Cold War adversaries found it better to eliminate the nukes rather than risk nuclear Armageddon.

2. Is Trump correct about Russia not honoring the agreement?

Trump is only the latest U.S. official to accuse Russia of cheating on the INF Treaty. Starting in 2014, officials in the Obama administration said Russia had illegally deployed land-based cruise missiles capable of striking targets in Eastern Europe. But Obama, who had long advocated nuclear arms control, did not seek to kill the treaty; instead, his administration tried to address alleged violations within the context of the INF Treaty.

3. Why would Trump pull out of a treaty signed by Reagan, a Republican hero?

Trump is no fan of adhering to international agreements he's inherited - from the Paris Agreement on climate and the Iran nuclear deal, to NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But his open affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin suggests it's actually the Russia hawks in his administration who are driving this treaty divorce. This bears the hallmarks of John Bolton, who took over as White House National Security Adviser in March and who's long advocated abrogating the INF. Bolton traveled to Moscow this week to deliver that message.

4. Is this bad news for Russia?

Not necessarily. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, labeled Trump's pullout announcement "blackmail" and "a very dangerous step," according to the Russian news agency Tass. But there could also be an upside in this for Russia. A collapse of the treaty would allow Moscow to more freely deploy currently prohibited weapons - those that the U.S. says are in violation of the treaty. The U.S., in contrast, destroyed its arsenal of intermediate-range nukes long ago, and only since last year has Washington begun to research and develop replacements. Moscow is also certain to blame the U.S. for the death of a treaty it claims to still honor.

5. Might the Trump administration simply be bluffing in order to get a better agreement?

Perhaps. This Soviet-era treaty limits what kind of nukes the U.S. can deploy not just in Europe, but across the planet. China, which has no such restrictions, is challenging U.S. military power in the South China Sea. Trump wants an arms control deal that would include China. But that's not likely to happen — almost all of an estimated 2,000 weapons in China's nuclear arsenal would be proscribed under the INF, while the U.S. has nuclear-armed submarines and heavy bombers deployed in that region to deter China's use of those weapons.

6. The U.S. has other arms control agreements with Russia. Might they, too, be in peril?

Yes. One at risk is the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, which allows Russia and the United States to fly spy planes over each other's territory and share the intelligence they gather. It has hit roadblocks put up by the U.S. this year and no such flights have yet taken place. The 2011 New START treaty, the only remaining big arms control accord curtailing intercontinental nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles, is set to expire in early 2021. The Trump administration has not said whether it will exercise its option to renew that treaty for another five years.

More broadly, there appears to be a major pivot underway in U.S. arms control policy. Since the 1970s, the thrust had been to limit nuclear weapons. Under Trump, the momentum all seems to be toward ending these treaties and letting the stalled nuclear arms race get going again.

"We'll build it up," Trump declared Monday of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, "until they come to their senses." He said he was referring to both Russia and China, and "anybody else that wants to play that game."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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