With the announcement of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, the issue of Russia’s response rises to the fore. First of all, the US decision is not yet official. It can still be reconsidered. After the formal notification the treaty will still have another six months of life left. Moscow is ready for talks at any level at any time. The US administration is in for a rough patch. Opposition to the decision is strong in Congress, with many American pundits and NATO allies expressing their disagreement. Germany has already criticized the move. It’s not over yet. There is still a chance to save the landmark agreement. But if the worst happens and the INF Treaty is relegated to history, Russia will hardly kneel down and surrender. It will respond. It has options.
Since the US currently has no ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles, Russia can easily extend the range of its Iskander missile systems to encompass all of Europe, with American military assets as their prime targets. Moscow can field ground-launched Kalibr cruise missiles. The number of conventional and nuclear-tipped air- and sea-based cruise missiles in Europe and nearby waters can be easily increased. The Russian navy and air force now have the capability to attack the continental US with intermediate-range missiles by launching them beyond the reach of air-defense systems. This capacity can be increased. Russian naval ships armed with cruise missiles could drop anchor in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua on a rotational basis. Long-range aviation bombers could use the air bases there too. Russia has never before threatened the continental US, but now it will have to. After all, it wasn’t the one who started all of this.
As one can see, Moscow has a long list of potential responses up its sleeve. It’s very important to realize that, unlike in the 1980s, Russia has the intermediate-strike capability to threaten the US continent. It could hit Alaska with medium-range weapons right now. Times have changed.
The idea behind the move is to link the INF Treaty with the New START Treaty in order to make Russia more tractable. But Russia is currently modernizing its strategic arsenal, with new resources becoming operational, while the US still has a long way to go developing, testing, and introducing new systems in order to upgrade its abilities. That will take years. By endangering the New START Treaty, the US is shooting itself in the foot.
This bilateral relationship is at a low ebb, but it’s wrong to use arms-control agreements as bargaining chips. To employ the terminology of the Helsinki Act — sanctions, Ukraine, Syria, and accusations of “election meddling” should all go into one “basket,” while arms control, as well as the issues related to military activities, should go into another. The bilateral agenda should be compartmentalized, not linked. The individuals who worked on the Helsinki Act were very professional and hard-working and will forever be respected and remembered. They managed to accomplish a mission that seemed at first glance to be a tall order.
It’s hard to understand how dangerous an unfettered arms race is. US politicians may underestimate it. It’s true, the US has a much larger GDP, but Russia’s military programs are far less costly and much more efficient. Russia gets a bigger bang for its buck. This is the reality the US has to reckon with, whether it likes it or not.
It’s more productive to discuss the issue with professional military officers, especially those who have retired and are free to express their opinions. For a lot of reasons, the issues of arms control are not being seriously addressed by officials. That’s when a dialog between retired military professionals and pundits comes in handy.
The US is returning to the days of George W. Bush when the administration tried to avoid binding treaties. The logic behind this was that any binding treaty can be breached, so why tie one’s hands? Anything can be done in good faith. But administrations come and go. Different people have different interpretations of what has been agreed upon. You cannot depend on the goodwill of personality. Only a binding, written agreement can guarantee the efficiency of verification procedures. And it is better if it is ratified, so as to codify the confidence-building provisions that have been agreed upon.
There is one more detail of fundamental importance. If the two leading military powers have failed to curb the race in strategic nuclear forces, there is no chance that hypersonic weapons, space-based systems, long-range conventional missiles, and cybersecurity warfare activities will ever be controlled. The arms race will spread to other domains.
The “races” in various domains will sap resources. We’ve already seen that. And then we’ll have to start from scratch like our predecessors had to do. But this time there is no guarantee that we’ll be successful. The world has become too complicated.
One thing is evident — the arms race that the US has unleashed will not make that country stronger. Remember the problem of national debt? And one more thing — the US will be forever held responsible for what’s going to happen. History teaches us that the people who work to control deadly weapons are the wise ones. Those who refuse to do so are … something else. It’s best to think twice before making a decision to dismantle what has been created with so much blood, sweat, and tears, rather than to jump the gun and then pay dearly for a mistake that could have been easily avoided.