Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Trump scores a win over Russia

Ribald nuclear threats by Vladimir Putin show that Washington’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty was right.

Russian military drills in September as part of Vostok 2018 (Photo by Vladimir Gerdo via Getty)
Russian military drills in September as part of Vostok 2018 (Photo by Vladimir Gerdo via Getty)

Typically, Vladimir Putin answered Washington’s decision this month to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by making new nuclear threats against Europe. His posturing underscored why this was the right decision.

Better known as the INF Treaty, this agreement was signed in 1987 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and banned all land-based nuclear missiles of a 500-5500 kilometre range in Europe.

What is at stake in the withdrawal from the INF Treaty is not merely an issue of policy but also one of strategy.

The decision to abandon the treaty now three decades later is not merely a question of Russia’s violation of the terms, or China’s proliferation of conventional and nuclear intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Those would be solid reasons enough for leaving the treaty. Yet Washington’s withdrawal and threat to deploy weapons now in research and development aims also to negate the value of Russia and China’s habitual attempts to intimidate American allies with nuclear weapons and missiles.

Since Khrushchev and Mao’s time, both Russia and China have regularly and repeatedly brandished nuclear threats, believing that by doing so they could intimidate the world, especially the US and its allies, into giving them what they want.

Therefore, what is at stake in the withdrawal from the INF Treaty is not merely an issue of policy but also one of strategy.

Take Russia for example. Russia’s efforts to intimidate derives from the idea that by preliminary peacetime assaults through cyber and information warfare, organised crime, political and intelligence penetration, and subversion, plus conventional forces, and nuclear threats, the Kremlin can overawe or elbow aside a targeted country.

And to keep the West from responding forcefully, nuclear weapons are displayed “ostentatiously on Russia’s hip” to paraphrase FDR’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. This assumption that nuclear weapons may well be used is incorporated into every one of its major military exercises. The recent Vostok-2018 exercise (Russia’s Vostok 2018: a rehearsal for global-war?) with China was no exception.

Putin’s threats that European countries hosts INF weapons risk being targeted, as he told the Valdai conference this month, means he aims to restore Russia’s capacity for intimidating Europe, to use nuclear weapons for what he believes might be limited objectives. Alternatively, if Russia encounters resistance, he will threaten total war since no Russian government will survive a lost one, as he well knows.

Unfortunately, Europe has not and probably will not do enough to thwart this strategy at the lowest level of escalation (i.e. robust conventional deployments from the Arctic to the Black Sea).

What all this means is strategically no viable alternative exists other than this decision to leave the INF treaty to meet Russian efforts at nuclear intimidation (a treaty violation, regardless). The same goes for China’s military build-up to achieve a similar intimidation and fracturing of the US alliance system from South Korea to Australia.

The repeated arguments from the arms control community, namely that the US must continue to negotiate, fall to the ground when considering that Russia has violated every arms control treaty except the New START treaty in the last decade. And even here Moscow’s activities are suspect.

According to US nuclear specialist Mark Schneider, when Russia released its official nuclear weapon figures earlier this year as stipulated in the New START treaty, Moscow allegedly deployed 26 new inter-continental ballistic missiles, heavily laden with multiple independent reentry vehicles to attack various targets, with ten warheads each, while claiming their deployed warhead number declined by 116. Such declarations are therefore highly dubious.

Furthermore, official news agency TASS in late 2017 quoted retired colonel Viktor Litovkins, a noted Russian journalist, that Russia had over 1,800 deployed warheads, which is at least 239 more than their declared number.

Anyone arguing to continue to negotiate with Russia while they build more weapons and violate every existing arms control treaty, and also use chemical weapons abroad in the UK and Syria, must contend with these stubborn facts.

Likewise, China’s “no first use” doctrine is much more slippery than Beijing has asserted. Since China is a free-rider on every arms control treaty to date, nobody has any idea of its true nuclear capacities, doctrine or strategy. Indeed, if Washington was really clever it would associate withdrawal from the INF treaty with a formal call to both Moscow and Beijing to negotiate a new one, and insist that China participate in any future arms control treaty.

That would force Moscow to either put up or shut up about the necessity it claimed for China to take party in any future arms control talks, and raise questions in both capitals about China and Russia’s ever deepening strategic partnership if not alliance. Sadly, Washington has not yet grasped this nettle.

Nor did the US adequately prepare the ground for its decision on the INF treaty. This typically ham-handed Trumpian approach gives Moscow too many propaganda advantages in the impending political fight over arms control, although Europe probably will support this decision and Japan and South Korea almost certainly will.

It means we can only offer two cheers to Washington for this decision. But bad optics do not erase the substantively correct choice and its strategic logic.

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