For the first time in nearly 50 years, the world is sliding toward the horror of there being no legally binding agreement between the US and Russia to limit the production of nuclear arms.
This effectively takes the world back to 1972, and the height of the Cold War.
But this time it’s scarier, because China is now a player – and refusing to sign the arms-control treaties that for decades made the world a safer place.
How has it come to this?
The Trump administration has suspended participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the agreement signed in December 1987 that effectively led to the end of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.
The suspension comes after five years of bickering and competing claims that both parties have been violating the treaty.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said the America would rip up the agreement for good in six months unless Russia cleaned up its act.
But it’s also understood that by walking away from the treaty, even temporarily, the US is free to flex its missile-building muscles in the face of China’s unchecked expansion of its nuclear arsenal.
The China complication
China is thought to have up to 30 intermediate-range ballistic missiles – and much of that arsenal would be banned or limited by the INF if China were to become a signatory.
In fact, China refuses to sign on to the INF – but has blasted Trump’s plan to abandon the treaty.
The INF Treaty required the US and the Soviet Union to “verifiably” eliminate all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
This was under then-President Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum to “trust but verify” in his dealing with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
According to armscontrol.org: the agreement was “distinguished by its unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime, including on-site inspections.”
The treaty appeared rock solid until 2014, when the US first publicly charged Russia with developing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability prohibited by the agreement.
Russia denied breaching the agreement and counter-claimed that the missile defence launch system established by the US in Europe could also be used to fire cruise missiles, and also that it was making armed drones that are equivalent to ground-launched cruise missiles.
In October, Donald Trump first announced his intention to “terminate” the agreement, citing Russian noncompliance and concerns about China’s missiles.
Yesterday’s announcement is the first step in making that termination a reality.
“Countries must be held accountable when they break the rules,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference. “If Russia does not return to full and verifiable compliance . . . the treaty will terminate.”
Use of weapons more likely
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded: “The reluctance of the Americans to listen to reason and to hold any kind of substantive talks with us shows that Washington decided to crush the treaty a long time ago.”
Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, said Russia was “in material breach” and would “bear sole responsibility” for the treaty’s demise if it did not return to verifiable compliance.
The one remaining nuclear treaty, known as New Start – an accord signed in 2010 that caps the number of nuclear warheads possessed by both countries – expires in 2021.
Heather Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Financial Times that if the US rips up the INF in six months, “we are at the dawn of an era where the use of tactical, low-yield nuclear weapons is becoming more possible, not less.”