U.S. officially withdraws from the INF Treaty

The United States of America has officially withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Even Russia has announced that it would withdraw from the treaty.

INF Treaty

The features of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987 were:

  • The treaty prohibited the United States and the Soviet Union from possessing, testing and deploying ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (300 to 3,400 miles).
  • The treaty covers all types of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles whether their payload is conventional or nuclear.
  • The treaty exempted the air-launched and sea-based missile systems in the same range.

Under the treaty, both the US and Russia had destroyed 846 and 1,846 missiles respectively.

How the INF treaty aided in Diffusing Tensions?

Due to the limited range, Short flight times and unpredictable flight patterns, It was difficult to detect the short and medium ranges missiles. As a result, there was a threat of nuclear war in Europe which is sandwiched between Russia and the US.

The missiles were designed chiefly to fight a theatre nuclear war in Europe. It exacerbated crisis instability and increased the chances of an accidental nuclear war.

Hence the destruction of these missiles under the provisions of the INF treaty was highly beneficial towards enhancing both regional and global security.

China Factor

When the INF treaty was concluded and came into force, China had not yet emerged as a major player. In the following decades since then, China has steadily progressed in its military (including nuclear) capabilities to amass a large number and variety of mid-range missiles.

China’s mission which is driven by US capabilities, China contends that its march towards a better and more survivable nuclear arsenal is only to stabilise a relationship that had been rendered off-balance. It is believed that as many as 95% of all Chinese missiles are believed to be within the ranges of the INF treaty, a set of weaponry that the US and USSR/Russia had banned for themselves.

Over the years, China’s behaviour has turned far more assertive and it has not shied away from showcasing its anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.

Arms Race

  • Both Russia and US would indulge in the development of these short and medium ranges missiles.
  • There could be an arms race with the EU joining the race as a third entity since these missiles are mobile, hard to detect, nuclear-capable and can reach European cities, they have hardly any warning time at all so they reduce the threshold for any potential use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. This would result in instability and trust deficit leading to the arms race.
  • The withdrawal from the INF treaty will have ramifications for the US and Russia’s political relationship and may further harden the divide between the two nations and their positions on the modernisation of their nuclear capabilities.

US Message by walking out of the INF Treaty

It is said that the US is sending two messages by getting out of the INF treaty.

  • The first message is meant for Moscow which indicates American intolerance when it comes to sticking with instruments that are being violated. The US also wants to portray that Washington is ready to bear the risk of shedding even long-standing mechanisms if they no longer seem to address its security concerns.
  • The second signal is meant for Beijing. The US Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 had identified China as a nuclear adversary and echoed a concern that while the US had refrained from taking up nuclear modernisation owing to arms control instruments, ‘others’ had gone on to build new capabilities – Russia by violating existing arms control instruments and China by not being part of any.

Impact on India

The US is hoping to turn the death of the INF treaty into an opportunity for giving birth to a new instrument. The US has now stated the objective of crafting new arms control instruments that would better reflect current nuclear realities. The US looks to rope China into such arrangements (this would prove to be useful for India. But the task looks quite difficult now since China has indicated his lack of interest in any nuclear arms control treaty. China’s position remains that the two major nuclear possessors must first further reduce their nuclear armaments before expecting China’s participation.

The treaty was a bilateral arrangement and hence there are no direct implications of this of the withdrawal on India. But there are indirect ripples of this development that could well touch India’s shores, such as:

  • A politically vitiated relationship between the US and Russia will make India’s own bilateral engagement with each country more difficult (For Ex: American objections to India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system is just one such instance).
  • The nature of this vitiated relationship makes consensus or a united approach more problematic on matters of global security, such as the challenges of nuclear terrorism, the political situation in Syria, the nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, and so on.
  • The collapse of nuclear arms control removes what were largely seen as some foundational treaties, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and INF, from being examples or anchors for other nuclear dyads to follow.
  • At present in the world, there are nine nuclear weapons possessors, each of whom is engaged in advancing its nuclear capabilities to fit their idea of credible deterrence. There are no operational arms control models to emulate, except the US-Russia New Start treaty, which too is at present under an ominously grey cloud.
  • At a time when new technologies like cyber offensives, hypersonics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are fast emerging and there is no clarity on how these would intersect with nuclear deterrence, the lack of an arms control anchor could prove dangerous.

The situation in 2019 signals a nuclear world order (or maybe a disorder) in which nations are engaged in making exaggerated perceptions of each others’ capabilities and intentions. This exaggerated perceptions along with liberal doses of hyper-nationalism can lead to unbridled growth of new technologies creating an arms race instability and increased risk of stumbling into nuclear escalation.


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