Pentagon officials described a range of military responses, including efforts to develop better defenses against cruise missiles, the European Reassurance Initiative to boost the U.S. military presence in Central Europe and the Baltics, and investments in new technologies to offset the Russian violation. These measures, however, were largely actions that the Pentagon would take in any case and which would continue even if Moscow corrected its violation. They did not create much incentive for a change in Russian policy.
The Trump administration stated on December 8, 2017—the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the INF Treaty—that it also wanted to bring Russia back into compliance. It announced a three-pronged “integrated strategy” to do so: diplomatic steps, including convening the Special Verification Commission, creating a military research and development program for a U.S. land-based intermediate-range missile, and enforcing economic sanctions on Russian entities that had been involved in development and production of the 9M729.
This strategy showed no success. The Special Verification Commission met, but by his own admission, Trump has never discussed the violation directly with Putin. The U.S. government either made no effort to stoke up approaches by Allied leaders to the Kremlin or, if it did, then that effort fizzled. Why didn’t U.S. officials use the threat of withdrawal with Allies to persuade them to engage Moscow more earnestly and at the highest level?
As for military steps, research and development on a U.S. intermediate-range missile likely caused little concern for the Russians. Fielding a missile would take years and cost a lot of money, money that the Pentagon does not have. The Russians, moreover, surely understand that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for NATO to reach a consensus on deploying new missiles in Europe. Recalling the huge anti-nuclear protests in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries in the early 1980s, some in the Kremlin might well welcome the intra-Alliance turmoil if NATO were to consider new deployments.
Pentagon officials suggested that the plan to build a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) could be suspended if Russia came back into compliance. That probably did not have much effect on Moscow’s calculations, especially if Russian officials read the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which laid down additional conditions: “If Russia returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects other [unspecified] destabilizing behaviors, the United States may reconsider the pursuit of a SLCM.”
Washington could have adopted a more robust military response. The U.S. military could have moved conventionally-armed Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Missiles (JASSMs) to Europe along with B-1 bombers to serve as delivery platforms. It could have increased the number of conventionally-armed SLCMs in European waters, for example, by sending the USS Florida, a converted ballistic missile submarine that can now carry up to 154 SLCMs, on a cruise in the North and Norwegian Seas, with port calls to let everyone know it was there. Such steps could have been done quickly with existing capabilities, would have fully complied with U.S. treaty obligations, and would have caught the attention of the Russian military.
The U.S. government also could have treated with greater seriousness the Russian charge that the Aegis Ashore deployment in Romania of an Mk-41 launcher system for SM-3 missile interceptors was inconsistent with the treaty. An Mk-41 launcher on a U.S. warship can carry lots of other weapons, including cruise missiles; Russian officials contended that it was a prohibited launcher of land-based intermediate-range missiles. U.S. officials should have made clear to their counterparts that, if they would seriously address U.S. concern about the 9M729, then the U.S. side would deal with the Russian concern about the Mk-41.
Would these political and military steps have succeeded? We will not know, because Washington did not try. If Trump administration officials had a serious game plan for implementing the December “integrated strategy” to bring Russia back into compliance, then that plan was not apparent. That may be explained by John Bolton becoming National Security Advisor in April. A long-time critic of arms control in general, and of the INF Treaty in particular, Bolton probably was just as happy abandoning the treaty.
One other issue has arisen: Chinese intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The need to balance against those missiles has been cited as a reason for why the United States is leaving the treaty, but it is unclear if the Pentagon has even decided that it has a requirement for land-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia. In 2017, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate panel that the United States could counter China with air- and sea-based weapons.
R.I.P. INF Treaty
To be sure, Russia committed an egregious violation. The United States could not be expected to remain in the treaty indefinitely under those circumstances. Those who support withdrawal are correct on that point.
However, Trump did not have to withdraw from the treaty at this time, especially when there were political and military measures to apply pressure on Moscow—measures that might have persuaded Russia to come back into compliance. Unfortunately, now we will not know if that tactic would have worked. Instead, the president has delivered a gift to the Russians, who will soon be able to deploy, without constraint, intermediate-range missiles for which the U.S. military has no land-based counterpart. As a bonus for Moscow, Washington will catch the international political flack for the treaty’s demise.
Steven Pifer, a William J. Perry fellow at Stanford and nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, worked extensively on intermediate-range nuclear forces issues in the 1980s in Washington, Geneva and Moscow.