U.S. and Russia pull out of nuclear treaty



In the two years since Donald Trump’s inauguration, his relationship with Russia has been questioned many times. From Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to a dossier claiming Trump once paid prostitutes to urinate on a bed in Moscow, Trump and Russia have become inextricable in the American consciousness. However, this close relationship was strained when the U.S. government, under the instruction of President Trump, dropped out of a nuclear arms control treaty on Feb. 1. The move was matched by Russia, where President Putin also suspended the treaty.

The U.S. announced its departure from the deal when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly accused Russia of disobeying the treaty, saying “countries must be held accountable when they break the rules,” according to the New York Times. Pompeo specifically criticized Russia for violating the terms by developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles and blamed them for putting “millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk,” as reported by CNN.

The deal that the U.S. and Russia are suspending has its roots in Cold War negotiations between the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union. “The genesis of the agreement goes back quite a number of years to the mid-70s or so,” said Ambassador Yalowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Belarus and Cyrus Vance Visiting Lecturer in International Relations at Mount Holyoke College. “The concern was that the Russians who had these intermediate nuclear missiles might attack western Europe, but that the United States might not retaliate because it would be [the question of] would we want to sacrifice Chicago for Frankfurt, Germany?”

The Intermediate-Range Missile Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banning development of intermediate-range missiles was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, putting an end to the years both countries had suffered, living in constant fear of nuclear disaster during the Cold War. In the early 1980s, the arms race had mounted to a crisis: the Soviet Union created and deployed the SS-20 missile, able to carry three nuclear warheads, and the U.S. developed cruise and two-stage ballistic missiles in response.

“I can remember the INF treaty being signed in 1987 by Reagan and Gorbachev and thinking what an extraordinary breakthrough it was,” said Professor Stephen Jones, Chair of International Relations and Professor of Russian Studies at Mount Holyoke College. “The INF treaty was key to the dismantling of the Cold War and its institutions, most notably the senseless and costly arms race,” he added.

In 2014, The Obama administration accused the Russian government of “testing a ground-based cruise missile in direct violation of the accord,” but did not take immediate action, according to Vox. In 2018, Putin revealed “a nuclear-powered cruise missile that can hit any point on Earth.” As a result of Russia’s supposed breach of the treaty in 2018, Reuters reported that “Washington said it formally notified Russia and other treaty parties of the United States’ intent and suspended its obligations under the INF.”

“What has happened now is that we are arguing that the Russians have developed a cruise missile [...] and they are violating the treaty. The Russians, in turn, are arguing that we have violated the treaty, are moving away from the anti-ballistic control treaty,” said Yalowitz.

In a meeting with foreign and defense ministers, Putin responded directly to the actions taken by the U.S. “The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal, we suspend it as well,” he said, according to Reuters.

Jones thinks that both the U.S. and Russia are to blame for the treaty’s disintegration. “Each side blames the other for not observing the treaty. Obama accused Russia of breaking the treaty, but Obama was a little more patient than Trump,” he said. “Trump and his National Security officials feel constrained by the treaty.”

“I think it’s a mistake to pull out of such a treaty,” said Nora Cyra ’21, who is double majoring in International Relations and Russian and Eurasian Studies. “I think it was a historic occasion when it happened, and I think it’s dangerous to leave it so suddenly without any sort of backup negotiations in place. I think it’s easy to forget how recently the Cold War and the arms race occurred, and how absolutely terrifying that was for the rest of the world.”

Jones echoed Cyra’s concerns. “The U.S.-Russia relationship is at its lowest ebb after the invasion of Georgia [2008] and Crimea/Ukraine [2014]. This is just another indication that the Cold War, though in the different form, is still an albatross around our necks.”

For Yalowitz, this form of diplomacy — threats and broken promises — is unproductive and unhealthy. “I’m a former diplomat,” said Yalowitz. “I believe in talking. Trump has a different view of the world. He believes international treaties weaken us, that we can exert more influence and strength in multilateral business… [but] the downsides of leaving this are still greater.”

Trump's choice to suspend the INF "has the potential to incite a new arms race — not only with Russia, but also with China, which was never a signatory to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. It also comes as the United States has begun building its first long-range nuclear weapons since 1991, a move that other nations are citing to justify their own nuclear modernization efforts," the New York Times reported. According to Jones, Russia wants "to be able to deploy intermediate range nuclear missiles near the borders of China, which is seen as a new threat."

In a statement for the record of the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence, declared that "China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge, particularly regarding perceived US unilateralism and interventionism and Western promotion of democratic values and human rights."

Yalowitz is concerned about the ramifications of China's involvement at a nuclear level. "I would call [Russia and China] allies of convenience. Russia is a declining power; China is a rising power – both of them want to see the U.S. removed from the situation as a superpower," he said.

Although threats are being exchanged on both sides, there is still a chance for reconciliation, or at least de-escalation. Trump can either replace the INF or renew New Start, another major treaty that the New York Times credits with bringing “American and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in nearly 60 years.” New Start expires in 2021, after the presidential inauguration, so its renewal is still to be determined.

Cyra is pessimistic about the future of U.S.-Russia relations. “I don’t see it getting any better,” she said. “We’re in such a hostile situation right now, that any increase in weapons on either side would be matched, which I don’t like the thought of.”

Yalowitz is similarly worried, although less so about the current events and more about the potential for escalation in the future. “So far, the bark has been worse than the bite,” he said. “We haven’t left NATO yet. The concern I have is what is to come in the next two years. A lot of the ‘adults’ in the White House have left, and I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s left who can advise [Trump] and I don’t know if he will listen. We have a worrisome dynamic.”

Although Yalowitz worked in the U.S. Foreign Service with success for over 30 years, he has just about given up on his former coworkers and peers for any hope of reconciliation with Russia. His only remaining hope, he said, lies with his students.

“I look to the next generation,” he said.