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Trump's INF exit: Masterminded by John Bolton

Michael Knigge Washington
October 23, 2018

Donald Trump's planned withdrawal from a key arms control treaty with Moscow has the handwriting of his hawkish national security advisor and could trigger a new arms race. Still, Europe bears part of the blame.

USA Donald Trump at Elko Regional Airport in Elko Nevada
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

Why does the Trump administration want to exit the INF?

President Donald Trump chose to announce his intention to exit the signature 31-year-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia — a legacy achievement hammered out by his predecessor and Republican icon Ronald Reagan — on the fringes of a campaign rally over the weekend in the most basic terms: "Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement, so we're going to terminate the agreement, and we're going to pull out."

There is, however, a backstory to Trump's impromptu announcement. It begins in 2014, when the Obama administration first officially claimed that Moscow had violated the accord by producing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile not covered by the treaty. The Kremlin rejected the charge, but Washington was not convinced. It has maintained in every annual State Department report on arms control compliance since 2014 that Moscow is in violation of the INF treaty.          

Trump is correct that Russia is not complying with the agreement, said Alexandra Bell, who worked on arms control in the Obama State Department and is now the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation. But Russia's violation has been known for years and she believes it does not justify Trump declaring the US withdrawal from such a landmark treaty on the sidelines of a campaign rally in Nevada.

Read more: Prepare for a 'new Cold War' without INF, Russia analyst says

"It is never fun to be the grown-up in a relationship, is it?" she said, referring to the president's tit-for-tat rationale for nixing the treaty, which she called "reckless, dangerous and completely needless. We have not exhausted all diplomatic options to fix this treaty, so there really is no excuse for this particular move."

Bell pointed to progress made last year when the US officially named a particular missile, Russia's Novator 9M729, as being in violation of the treaty, and the Kremlin — while rejecting that the missile was violating the accord — admitted to the existence of the weapon.

"While we are still in a state of denial, we are at least talking about the same, exact missile and that it does exist and that is grounds to move forward," said Bell. "What I haven't seen from Washington or Moscow is a clear concerted effort to deal with this issue amongst technical experts," she added, noting that there had been only one formal strategic security dialogue over the last 18 months. 

Another reason often mentioned by Trump administration officials for exiting the INF treaty is China, which is not part of the accord and has been ramping up its arsenal of mostly conventional missiles in recent years, said Miles Pomper, a nuclear arms control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. "They see it as outmoded and limiting the US in its growing standoff with China."

But countering a Chinese weapons build up also isn't a convincing rationale for giving up the INF, according to Pomper and Bell, since the US already possesses air and sea-launched military options in Asia that can credibly fulfill the role of protecting Washington's and its allies' interests in the region.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the landmark INF treaty Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AFP

Who is behind the move?

There is broad consensus among arms control experts that US National Security Advisor John Bolton is the driving force to get Washington out of the INF treaty. And, as is often the case with Bolton's key political convictions, he outlined his disdain for the INF in a Wall Street Journal article back in 2011. Russian noncompliance, however, was not the argument put forward by Bolton. To the contrary, Bolton wrote that "both Moscow and Washington have a common interest in not having their hands tied by a treaty that binds them alone."

Read more: Renegotiate the INF agreement, don't withdraw!

The treaty constrained the US (and Russia) not only from countering the Iranian threat, but also China and North Korea, Bolton argued, concluding that Washington should either seek "to expand it or expunge it".      

"This is something John Bolton has been thinking about for a long time," said Pomper, "because Bolton and like-minded officials don't like such treaties to begin with, so they are more than pleased that the Russians and Trump have handed them the opportunity to dismantle them." 

Bell also thinks that Bolton has been consistently whispering in Trump's ear to nix the treaty, because she does not believe that the president on his own would be greatly interested in the details and possible violations.

Is leaving the INF in Washington's interest?

No, said Steven Pifer, a former top State Department official and US ambassador to Ukraine who was part of the team from Washington that negotiated the INF treaty in the 1980s.   

"President Trump's decision to withdraw from the INF treaty now is a mistake," he said. "It will cause division within NATO — senior German, French and Italian officials have already questioned it — and the United States will be blamed for the treaty's demise, despite the Russian violation."

Read more: What is the INF nuclear treaty?

Pifer added that the main beneficiary of a US exit will not be Washington, but Moscow: "Once the treaty lapses, Russia will be free to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles for which the United States currently has no counterpart." But even if the US developed such a weapon, he noted, it would be doubtful that NATO would reach consensus to deploy it in Europe.

"I oppose Trump's plan as much for how it's being done as the substance," said Pomper. "Trump has set the US up to take the political heat in the international community and particularly in Western Europe for its failure even though it's primarily Russia's fault. I think there are tactical moves the US could have made to try and salvage the treaty and, failing that, for Russia to take the blame."

US Pershing missiles stationed in German
As a result of the INF treaty, US Pershing missiles stationed in Germany were withdrawnImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Melchert

Can Europe press Trump to remain in the treaty?   

Europe should and must do so, said the scholars, even though the track record of European leaders trying to change Trump's mind on exiting international accords is bleak — as evidenced by the US withdrawal from the Paris climate deal and the Iran nuclear agreement.

What's more, Europe has long been asleep at the wheel regarding Russia's treaty violations and a possible INF exit by the Trump administration, which has been rumored for some time, argued the experts.

"I've seen no public reference to any European leader having raised this with Putin," said former Ukraine ambassador Pifer, now a scholar at Stanford University and the Brookings Institution. "They did not use a chance to put some political pressure on the Kremlin — whether or not it would have changed things is another question."

Their reluctance to address the issue earlier also means that they now will have less credibility to try to persuade Washington to stay in the treaty, said Pifer, because the Trump administration can say now: "If you didn't care enough to raise the Russian violation at high levels with Russia, why do you care that we are withdrawing?"