The Irish Times view on arms control: the treaty should be saved
The US is preparing to walk away from a pact that has made the world safer for 40 years
Donald Trump is not the first US president to accuse Russia of breaching the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, a landmark arms control pact agreed between Washington and Moscow in 1987. Barack Obama’s administration was of the same view, arguing that Russia was in violation because it deployed banned tactical weapons to intimidate eastern European states that had aligned themselves with the West. But Obama appears never to have seriously considered abandoning the agreement, principally because of European objections and fears that doing so would precipitate a new arms race.
Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF banned all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500km to 5,500km. US concerns about a Russian breach were first raised in 2014, when the Obama administration accused Russia of testing a ground-launch intermediate-range cruise missile. The Trump White House last year said Russia had begun deploying it. Russia denies that this amounts to a violation and argues that anti-missile batteries the US has placed in Europe could be used to fire other missiles in the banned range.
The alleged Russian breach has given Trump a useful pretext. His real concern appears to be China, which is not a party to the INF and has been building up its nuclear and conventional arsenal. Beijing has no incentive to negotiate a recast INF because most of its missiles fall into the prohibited range, meaning it would be giving up its key tool in deterring US forces in the Pacific.
Abandoning the treaty is still a bad mistake. Not only will doing so further alienate America’s European allies, it will free Russia to deploy new weapons. Instead, Washington should be using the vast diplomatic tools at its disposal to increase pressure on Russia to comply with the deal. Repudiating the pact should be the last resort, not the opening gambit.