The Donald Trump administration’s first Nuclear Posture Review, presented in February, has abandoned former president Barack Obama’s nuclear disarmament “promise” and, instead, vowed to enhance the role of nuclear power in the US’ security strategy including developing sea-launched nuclear missiles, which in a way lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons.
In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has developed a new type of strategic weapon system comprising hypersonic missiles, nuclear power cruise missiles and unmanned underwater vehicles. This shows Moscow is prepared for a nuclear arms race with Washington.
US-Russia relations deteriorated following the Ukraine crisis, and further worsened due to allegations of Russia’s involvement in the US presidential election. And now the Trump administration wants to “terminate” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the United States and the Soviet Union three decades ago to eliminate all nuclear and conventional missiles and their launchers with ranges of 500-1,000 kilometres and 1,000-5,500km – the treaty didn’t cover sea-launched nuclear missiles, though.
Upping the rhetoric, former US defence secretary Robert Gates has said Russia, not the US, first expressed the desire to terminate the INF Treaty in 2007, because it “suspected” the US of having developed a weapons system that violated the treaty. The US-Russia impasse has reached such a state that neither side is ready to listen to the other’s explanation.
Whether the treaty would be abolished or not depends on the two countries’ strategic choices. Since the Cold War has ended, Russia says, the key function of nuclear weapons now is to safeguard national security. Russia has subtly rescinded its nuclear no-first-use commitment, too. And except for its strategic nuclear arsenal, Russia refuses to subject thousands of other nuclear weapons to arms control and inspection.
With the new US Nuclear Posture Review identifying Russia as a strategic competitor and Putin announcing the development of a new type of strategic weapon system, it seems the two powers have already entered an arms race to seize strategic advantage.
US-Russia relations are at the lowest point since the end of Cold War, and both sides are re-assessing the need for the INF Treaty in accordance with their respective defence policies.
In October last year, Putin said Russia would abide by the INF Treaty as long as the US does the same. In December, the Trump administration announced that it had adopted a new strategy combining both diplomatic and economic measures to urge Moscow to abide by the treaty, which does not exclude on-the-spot inspection by a special inspection committee, if and when necessary. That both the US and Russia have questions over the treaty is more than evident. When the George W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002-the first time the US had pulled out of an international arms treaty-Moscow accused Washington of dealing a blow to international strategic stability.
With US-Russia relations continuing to deteriorate, many US officials asked last year whether the INF Treaty should be kept alive. And several US congressmen and government officials have questioned Trump’s decision-making ability when it comes to international security and military strategy. Trump has set up a “special elite” group to resolve the treaty issue, but only time will tell whether it can produce the right results for the US.
The author is a senior research fellow at China Arms Control and Disarmament Association