Why the collapse of a historic nuclear treaty could lead to a Cold War-like arms race

A Russian military officer walks past the 9M729 land-based cruise missile.
Russia denies its 9M729 land-based cruise missile violates the key nuclear arms pact. (AP: Pavel Golovkin)

The United States and Russia have ripped up a Cold War-era nuclear missile treaty, leaving analysts fearing a potential arms race with global ramifications.

BY  | abc.net.au March 2, 2019

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was ready for a Cuban Missile-style crisis if the US wanted one, referring to the 1962 standoff that brought the world to the edge of nuclear war.

Decades later, tensions between the two nations are heating up again.

Mr Putin warned that Moscow would retaliate if the US placed new missiles closer to Russia, telling local media that Moscow could deploy hypersonic missiles on ships and submarines outside US territorial waters.

The comments were made after the Trump administration announced it would officially abandon a historic nuclear pact that had kept nuclear missiles out of Europe for three decades.

Here’s a look at what the treaty is, what may come next, and why analysts believe its demise could lead to a 21st-century arms race.

What is the INF treaty?

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) bans the US and the Russian Federation, previously the Soviet Union, from developing, testing and possessing short- and intermediate-range missiles that could be launched from the ground, as opposed to the sea or sky.

The treaty — signed by former US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987 — declared that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and took seven years to negotiate.

Both sides agreed to destroy a total of 2,692 short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres that were stationed in, or aimed at Europe.

The treaty is credited with helping to end the Cold War.

Maria Rublee, a former US intelligence officer and nuclear politics expert at Monash University, told the ABC these missiles were seen as a “hair trigger for nuclear war” due to how quickly they could strike a target.

“The flight times on these missiles could be as short as 10 minutes to launch nuclear destruction,” she said.

“You don’t have time to talk, to pick up the phone, the red hotline, to say what’s going on and ask if this is a mistake.”

Washington and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies claim Moscow has been violating the terms of the treaty by developing missiles within the range for years, but Russia has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Earlier this month the Trump administration declared it would suspend US obligations under the treaty, with the intention of withdrawing because of Russia’s alleged non-compliance.

The day after the announcement, Russia also said it would withdraw from the treaty, and accused the US of fabricating the allegations so it could develop new missiles.

Can the INF treaty be revived?

The treaty is not dead just yet — both parties must give six months notice before they can officially withdraw — but Dr Rublee said the chances of the treaty being revived were low, although there was some hope.

“[The first step] is not going to come from the Trump administration and it’s not going to come from Russia,” she said.

“It would need to come from NATO because the countries most at risk are European countries.”

Dr Rublee said the bilateral framework for arms control between the two nations began to deteriorate when former US president George W Bush pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001.

“There are some sincere Russian concerns that the US will be able to use its launchers for missiles, but the US were not in violation of the INF treaty,” she said.

Another critical arms control agreement is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which limits the number of US and Russian nuclear warheads.

That treaty was signed in 2011 and is set to expire next year.

While many analysts agree that Moscow is adhering to this treaty, there are fears it may not be extended, prompting Mr Putin to issue a warning about the rising threat of nuclear war.

What might happen next?Russian weapons test explosion is seen on screen as government officials look on.PHOTO: Russia tested a hypersonic glide missile late last year. (AP: Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik)

Dr Rublee said an arms race could be on the horizon if there was no diplomatic way around the issue of rectifying the treaty.

“It’s very dangerous if we suddenly have a proliferation of these short- and medium-range missiles,” she said, adding that both sides have claimed they are ready to get started on the development of these weapons.

“Russia said they’re going to start producing missiles that fit into the range and the US has also authorised funds for research and development for intermediate range missiles.”

According to Ramesh Thakur, director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Australian National University, NATO stands to lose more than Russia by the US pulling out of the treaty.

“Russia will be able to move ahead rapidly with the development and deployment of short- and medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles,” he wrote in an article on The Conversation.

“But, unlike in the 1980s, the US would face difficulty in finding allies in Europe prepared to station such missiles on their territory.”

The missiles, which are banned under the INF treaty, cannot be launched from US territory and would need countries to host them.

Both the US and Russia are also driven by concerns about China and other nuclear states that are not bound by the treaty.

While Washington is currently not worried about Beijing’s intermediate-range missiles, if the US started to become belligerent “it’s going to force China into producing nuclear missiles”, according to Dr Rublee.

If that tension escalated, the US would be “knocking on allies’ doors asking to host their missiles”, Dr Rublee said, adding that the longest standing ally in the Pacific is Australia, which was unlikely to do so.

“That would make Australia a target of Chinese nuclear missiles. So this could really end up causing a lot of strife between the US and Australia,” she said.

Dr Rublee said nuclear weapons were like an expensive “noose around your neck” — countries with nuclear weapons will say they are integral to national security, but non-nuclear countries might disagree.

“They take away from conventional military forces in terms of funding, personnel, intellectual energy, research and development, and we’ve had countries which have succeeded quite well without them,” she said.

“But if you’re caught up in that game with them it’s very hard to get rid of them.”


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