The intermediate range nuclear forces treaty (INF) was signed by the United States and Russia in December 1987 and ratified the following year. It was designed to limit the development of missiles with a range from 500 to 5500 kilometres.
At the time, the treaty had a number of strategic advantages, quite apart from the general virtue of limiting the development of nuclear weapons. Europe was most obviously the primary beneficiary.
The treaty also had a number of limitations, not least that it was a two party arrangement, excluding the other nuclear powers, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.
The United States was prepared initially to abide by the treaty because it believed that it had military superiority over the USSR (still in existence at that time) and that belief was reinforced by the deterioration in Russia’s position following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disastrous Yeltsin years.
The first intimation that this belief in their superiority had some tentative doubts came when George W Bush unilaterally abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002. That sent a clear signal to Russia that the United States could not be trusted.
In his seminal speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2007 Russia’s President Putin foretold the dangers of the US policy path. He said that “the unipolar world is not only unacceptable, but also impossible in today’s world.” He went on to say that “we are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law……….one State, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”
Later in the speech Mr Putin drew attention to the expansion of NATO (contrary to Bush senior’s undertaking) and it said that it “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”
It was a measure of The US’s disregard for other, and particularly Russian opinion, that Putin’s words were ignored. Putin himself, in his later March 2018 speech drew attention to this American attribute when he noted that “you ignored us then, perhaps you will listen to us now.”
That Russia would take steps to protect itself should have been obvious. The results of those steps that Russia did indeed take were outlined in Putin’s speech on 1 March 2018 in which he revealed an array of new weaponry that placed Russia at least a decade ahead of the United States in military technology.
This missile technology gap has been explored in detail by, among others, Dimitry Orlov and Andrei Martyanov.
Trumps announced withdrawal from the INF might therefore be seen as a partial response to Putin’s speech because the United States wishes to develop the very weapons banned under the INF and place them in Europe where the shorter range to European targets greatly reduces the reaction time available. The proximity of these weapons creates an existential threat to Russia.
That such a policy is neither welcomed by most European nations, who become obvious targets wherever United States forces are stationed, nor realistic, as these consequences appear not to penetrate United States strategic thinking. Alternatively, they do know but simply do not care, an argument advanced by Orlov (op cit.) who suggests that the Europeans will come to realize that good relations with Russia and China will be seen as an asset, whereas the US (not least for its hubris and disregard for European interests) will be seen as a liability.
Orlov sees that US abandonment of the INF as a route to Eurasia being protected by the Russian nuclear umbrella, with China’s Belt and Road Initiative being the glue that holds things together.
Russia’s missile capabilities, on land, at sea and in the air are our such that any US attack will result in an immediate and devastating retaliation. As the more realistic US strategists acknowledge, the United States has no effective means of defence.
Trump’s announcement therefore must have other objectives beyond of the abandonment of yet another treaty obligation. One can put aside his reported wish to meet with Russia and China “in a great big beautiful room” and negotiate a new treaty. Trump is reported as saying (Washington Post 5 February 2019) “that we’ll build it (the missile system) up until China and Russia come to their senses.” The detachment from reality could not be clearer.
The real motives behind the American announcement have more to do with the United States wishing to be in a position to challenge China from its military bases (Guam, Japan, and South Korea). All of those countries lie within the range available to the intermediate range category of nuclear missiles currently banned under the INF treaty.
As the Rand Report of 2016 “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” pointed out, China’s non-membership of the INF gave China a significant advantage. But the United States is making the same mistake with regards to China that it continues to make in respect of Russia.
While it is likely that the Chinese do not have, yet, the same defensive missile capabilities as Russia, they have certainly developed an offensive capability with, inter alia, the Dong Feng category of missiles that have the capability of not only destroying the US carrier based fleets anywhere within a 1500 km range from Chinese territory, but can also deliver a devastating intercontinental nuclear response.
It would also be extraordinary naïve to believe that an attack by the United States on either Russia or China would not be seen by the other as an existential threat to their own existence and retaliate accordingly. The American inability to heed the advice of both Kissinger and Brzezinski to avoid the situation whereby Russia and China become strategic partners is further evidence of the flaws in US policy.
At root therefore in the US worldview is the inability to see, and a denial of the fact, that a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the world has taken and is taking place.
Insofar as they do recognise the challenges that exist to their earlier hegemony, the response has been to resist and challenge it. Decades of colour revolutions, trade wars, sanctions, hybrid warfare and at the extreme (as in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria) all out invasion and occupation, are to be seen in this light.
The unipolar world run by the United States for its own benefit and profit is, as Mr Putin said in 2007, “not only unacceptable but impossible.” The actions/reactions described above are also reflective of Putin’s statement regarding the US’s disdain for international law and acting outside its boundaries in every sense of the word.
The fantastically expensive, corrupt and militarily inferior United States military industrial complex of course welcomed Trump’s announcement. The mainstream media have added their support with the bizarre claim that the American withdrawal from the INF treaty would “make America safer.”
It is these delusions that perhaps pose the greatest danger. Unless the message clearly given on more than one occasion by Mr Putin and others finally sinks in, the risk of a nuclear war will increase, not diminish. Turning the world into a radioactive wasteland is too high a price to pay for the Americans to learn that lesson.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.