The road to what became the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union began on 15th January 1986 with a statement by Mikhail Gorbachev. “On the negotiating table in Geneva”, he said, “is a Soviet proposal to reduce by half the respective nuclear arms of the USSR and the USA, which would be an important step towards the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”
The world was sceptical that an agreement between the two could ever be reached. We were wrong. Less than two years later, in December 1987 US President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet General Secretary signed the INF Treaty which committed the US and USSR (and later Russia) to eliminate nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.
It resulted in American cruise and Pershing missiles and Soviet SS20s being removed from Europe – and with it the threat of a nuclear war on our doorstep which had brought hundreds of thousands out on the streets of Britain in the early 1980s. Nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles were destroyed, and US cruise missiles were removed from Greenham Common airbase in March 1991.
Thirty years later the treaty is under attack. On 20th October President Trump announced his intention to pull the US out of the INF Treaty.
It’s still unclear whether Trump intends to withdraw completely or simply suspend operation of the treaty on the basis that Russia is in material breach - an action permitted under international law. The US alleges Russia’s modernisation of its Iskander missile system has resulted in the deployment of non-compliant missiles.
President Putin denies any violation of the INF Treaty. Current developments, he asserts, began with the decision of President George Bush to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The subsequent deployment of US missile defence systems beyond America’s national borders, together with the development of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles by China and others, has prompted Russia to build new strategic weapons systems.
European leaders have backed Trump’s call for greater Russian transparency about its new missile capabilities. But they have also opposed US withdrawal from the INF.
Responding to Trump’s October announcement, a spokesperson for Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, also called for Russian compliance. But she said too: “The INF contributed to the end of the cold war and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture since it entered into force 30 years ago… The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.”
President Macron “underlined the importance of this treaty” for European security. A foreign ministry statement said France attributed “great importance to conventional and nuclear arms control instruments” and called “on all the parties to avoid any hasty unilateral decisions.”
But UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson sounded a cracked note. Britain stands “absolutely resolute” with the US, he said. Russia had made a “mockery” of the INF Treaty and must “get its house in order”.
The US is unlikely to find allies in Europe keen to host its short- and medium-range missiles on their soil. Nor is there likely to be a more enthusiastic response from Asian allies such as Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines.
Trump’s announcement appears to have wider implications than the European focus on Russia suggests. He made clear China played a role in his decision to pull out. “Unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and say let’s really get smart and let’s none of us develop those weapons,” Trump said. “But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable.”
American tensions with China are mounting over security issues as well as trade. The US National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review make clear that China is taking centre stage as the number one bogey man.
Its development of an anti-access area denial concept (A2/AD) concept alludes to a cluster of Chinese military capabilities used to prevent opposition forces entering a particular area and reduce their freedom of movement when they’re there. A key component is the use of ballistic and cruise missiles.
It’s too early to claim we’re heading into World War III. But it’s well worth keeping watch on Trump’s treaty trashing.
* Carol Turner is co-chair of Labour CND and author of Corbyn and Trident: Labour’s continuing controversy.
Vice Chair, Labour CND