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Withdrawal of the US and Russia from the INF Treaty fuels fear of a new arms race

By Rajan Kumar:

Imagine the people living in London or Moscow in constant fear of a possible nuclear strike. It will take just five minutes for a nuclear missile to hit the target, and even a false alarm could trigger a retaliatory counter-strike in another five minutes. This was precisely the condition during the Cold War period which might re-appear with the withdrawal of the United States (US) and Russia from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty.

Russia and the US are headed towards a dark abyss with Europe caught in the middle of the tug-of-war. Not too far away, the spectre of a nuclear holocaust will go routinely viral’ with the overzealous social media and hyper-realist electronic media, with some suggesting more weapons in defence and some resurrecting the Cold War prescriptions of the “duck and cover” or “run to a shelter” methods to cope up with a possible nuclear disaster. Persistent myths and misperception will abuzz the social media, and the security hawks will routinely lambaste the government on TV studios for not spending enough on border-protection and military infrastructure.

A nationalist government would prioritise the production or purchase of sophisticated weapons, even when it comes at an opportunity cost of elementary health and education for children. The United States (US) and Russia will remain the chief provider of weapons for aspiring superpowers such as China, India and Japan. Is there any surprise then that the heads of governments of both Russia and the US expressed doubts and made no sincere effort to rescue the INF Treaty?

As a Cold War relic, the INF treaty was already under severe strain. Signed on 8 December 1987 by then US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, this treaty obligated the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US to destroy the ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBM) and the ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) with a target range of 500 to 5500 kilometres. The treaty sought to eliminate “intermediate range missiles” with a range of 1000 to 5,5000 kilometres and the “shorter range missiles” with a range of 500 to 1000 kilometres. The intermediate range missiles referred specifically to Pershing II and BGM109G of the US; and the SS-20, the SS-4 and SS-5 of the USSR. The shorter range included Pershing 1A of the US and SS-12 and the SS-23 of the USSR. Each party agreed to eliminate all shorter and intermediate range missiles and “no such missiles, launchers, support structures or support equipment shall be possessed by either Party.

They will also not produce or test any such missile. It had a provision of verification by on- site inspection. The treaty was for the unlimited duration, but each party possessed the right to withdraw subject to a six month of prior notice. Following this treaty, nearly 2700 missiles were destroyed. This treaty was taken as a successful step in the process of nuclear disarmament. It prevented a possible nuclear showdown between Russia and the US in Europe.

In October 2018, Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the US from the INF agreement citing two major reasons: Russia has violated this treaty by developing a new cruise missile; and the development of middle-range missiles by China and North Korea threatened US installations in the Pacific. Russia on the other side accused the US and the NATO of violating the provisions of the treaty by installing missile defence systems and launchers in Romania and Poland. Both the parties have blamed each other of violations, and most likely those allegations are not baseless, but the US was the first to declare the possible termination of the agreement.

The grand design of the US is to attain nuclear superiority, and disarmament treaties are obstacles to that end. One after the other, the US began to unfasten itself from the yoke of arms reduction treaties. George W. Bush announced the withdrawal of the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001. Having declared its termination from the two arms reduction treaties, the US is tied to just one more agreement, the New Start Treaty. The departure of the US has put a question mark on its continuation in the New Start Treaty beyond 2021.

The military modernisation and the growing influence of China bestows a new set of challenges to the US in the Pacific. The US wants to sell Aegis Ashore missile defence system to Japan which would violate the INF rules. This is also seen as one of the reasons for US disinterest in the INF. Ideally, the US would like to include China in arms deals negotiations in future. But given the complexities of Asia-Pacific, it would be difficult to bring China on the negotiating table without making compromises on Taiwan and Japan.

This new development will have serious implications for India in several ways. First, if there is an increased armed race where China acquires more weapons in its rivalry with the US, India will also come under pressure to expand its conventional and nuclear arsenal to establish minimum parity/deterrence with China. This would require diverting more resources on defence research and acquisitions. Second, if the US and Europe push for the multi-lateralisation of the arms-reduction treaty, countries like India, Iran, Israel and North Korea will also come under its purview.

India possesses both ballistic and cruise missiles of medium and short-ranges. Third, if the tension between Russia and the US increases, India would find it difficult to maintain the delicate balance that it has successfully managed until now. Fourth, it will come under pressure to forge military and security alliances with the US, Japan and Australia. Finally, it would be in the interest of India to support a multi-lateralisation of the INF type of treaty to avoid the spiral of the arms race in the region.

(The author is Associate Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He may be reached via e-mail at