Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

US quitting ballistic missile treaty is ‘a gift’ to Russia

Washington’s decision to finally end a Soviet-era arms control treaty be a relief to Moscow

The Titan Missile in Sahuarita, Arizona, US, February 2, 2019. Reuters
The Titan Missile in Sahuarita, Arizona, US, February 2, 2019. Reuters

After months of mounting rhetoric, the United States finally made good on a promise to leave a historic arms-control agreement with Russia this weekend and the news couldn’t have been better received in Moscow.

Washington’s decision to scrap the accord is a “gift,” Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov told The National. “It kills the treaty Russia hated and puts the blame for this squarely on Washington. Meanwhile, Russia looks like a grown up in the room.”

“Who could ask for more?” he asked.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally notified Russian officials on Saturday that Washington was suspending its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only Soviet-era arms agreement still intact today.

In response, Vladimir Putin told defense and foreign ministry officials during a televised meeting that Russia was getting out too. "The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal,” he said. “We suspend it as well."

Mr Putin went a step further, saying Russia would start working on new missiles, including hypersonic ones, which travel up to five-times faster than the speed of sound. Hours later, the head of the Russian government Dmitry Medvedev vowed to allocate funding for research and development of new weaponry.

“This is all about symmetry,” Mr Frolov said. Not only does Mr Putin’s decision send a message of strength under pressure, it “maintains the illusion that Russia is a US peer.”

In fact, analysts say, there’s every reason to believe that Russia, like the United States, wanted out of the treaty.

Since it was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it has become increasingly clear – in Moscow, at least – that the pact was heavily skewed in the West’s favour.

When the ban on building, testing and deploying land-based cruise and ballistic missile with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres was agreed, it did not include the US naval nuclear cruise missiles or the nuclear capabilities of France or the United Kingdom.

Mr Putin and his defence secretary at the time, Sergei Ivanov, first threatened to quit the INF treaty in 2007. The Kremlin was concerned that nearby countries including Pakistan, India, Iran and China were developing systems Russia was banned from developing under the accord.

After a meeting in Moscow with then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and defence secretary Robert Gates, Mr Putin said other international participants should assume the same obligations as Russia and US.

“It will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity,” he said.

More than 10 years later, Russian analysts believe that the United States has reached the same conclusion.

“Scrapping the INF Treaty gives Washington free rein to threaten North Korea while also pressuring China, the country Trump deliberately alluded to when announcing the US withdrawal from the treaty,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center think tank in Moscow recently wrote.

With both sides out and with little hope of the treaty being salvaged, Mr Trenin said that Russia needs to work with European governments “to prevent the growing likelihood of a military conflict in Europe in case US intermediate-range missiles are deployed in NATO countries.”

Anticipating the US decision to leave the accord, the head of a Kremlin-funded foreign policy think tank said that European countries should consider taking the lead on a new and more inclusive arms control regime. Given Washington’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty, “the threats to European security are higher,” director of the Russian International Affairs Council Andrei Kortunov wrote in Kommersant newspaper on Friday.

Pointing to the role that Germany, the UK and France played in initiating dialogue in 2003 that led to the Iran deal, Mr Kortunov wrote that in the wake of the INF, "perhaps, it is time European leaders show the same political will and imagination.”

However, with trust between Russia and European countries at a historic low over the Kremlin's 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal last year, dialogue over arms control may be some way off.

The end of the INF Treaty has called into question the future of New START, a 2010 agreement between the United States and Russia limiting their nuclear arsenals which is due to expire in 2021.

Few observers believe that either Mr Putin or Mr Trump will feel any sense of responsibility towards an agreement signed between former US President Barack Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In particular, Mr Trump since coming into office has regularly spoke of bolstering America’s nuclear arsenal and has ordered the military to produce low-yield nuclear warheads.

Updated: February 4, 2019 04:08 PM

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