Will the INF Treaty Be Kept Beyond Its 30th Anniversary?

Part 1 – An overview of the INF Treaty

Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and Ronald Reagan signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Dec 8, 1987
Mikhail Gorbachev (left) and Ronald Reagan signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Dec 8, 1987

Thirty years ago, on Dec. 8, 1987, the leaders of the USSR and the US – Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan – signed a treaty to eliminate intermediate- and shorter-range missiles (the INF Treaty).

While it was being actively implemented, 1,846 Soviet and 846 American nuclear-armed, land-based, ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers were destroyed.

After completely eliminating these missiles by the summer of 1991, both sides were satisfied that they had been able to fulfill all the provisions of this important bilateral agreement.

But beginning in June 2012, the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have become increasingly more insistent that Russia is violating this treaty.

Is this criticism justified?

Or is the very United States violating this treaty?

And if so, in what ways?


In December 1979, NATO adopted what was known as its Double-Track Decision. That alliance began preparations for a Western-European deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles and Tomahawk ground-launched cruise missiles that were in their final stages of development, while simultaneously offering to begin negotiating with the Soviet Union on intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear forces. On Nov. 18, 1981, the United States declared its readiness to cancel the deployment of its Pershing II and Tomahawk missiles, if the Soviet Union would dismantle all its intermediate-range missiles in both the European and Asian parts of that country. But this would effectively mean a unilateral disarmament for the Soviets, since for every two Soviet SS-20 (RSD-10) missiles being deployed, the USSR would be retiring three SS-4 (R-12) and SS-5 (R-14) missiles.

Several Pershing II missiles prepared for launching at Fort Bliss McGregor Range, 1987.
Several Pershing II missiles prepared for launching at Fort Bliss McGregor Range, 1987.

And so Moscow turned down this proposal, but it initiated negotiations to dramatically reduce or to even completely discontinue all types of intermediate-range nuclear weapons (including the aircraft that carry them) and to suspend any updates on them while the negotiations were underway.

However, the United States declined that offer and in late 1983 began deploying new nuclear missiles in Europe, where the countries of the alliance already had 857 nuclear carriers in place, including 651 aircraft belonging to the US (the F-111, F-111A, and F-4, plus its carrier-based aircraft stationed along the borders of the European continent), as well as 64 ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads from the United Kingdom and 98 nuclear missiles and 44 bombers belonging to France, all of which could together carry more than 400 nuclear warheads.

At that time the Soviet Union only owned 938 examples of such weaponry. If the NATO nations stationed another 572 nuclear missiles on the European continent, at that point the arsenals of the alliance’s nuclear powers would be 50% larger than those of the Warsaw Treaty countries. Thus, the approximate parity in the two sides’ nuclear missiles would be substantially tilted in favor of the trans-Atlantic military alliance.

Consequently the Soviet Union called a halt to the negotiations that had already begun.

A new stage began when Mikhail Gorbachev reopened those talks upon being elected to lead the USSR. He was a proponent of measures to encourage global nuclear disarmament and in 1986 put forth a step-by-step plan to create a nuclear-free world.

The first round of negotiations on strategic nuclear weapons and intermediate-range nuclear missiles began in Geneva on March 12, 1985, but no specific agreements were reached.

The next round of negotiations was held in  Reykjavik (Iceland) in September of 1986. There the USSR announced that it was prepared to sign a separate agreement on intermediate-range missiles, under which Soviet and American missiles of this class would be removed from Europe within five years, with only 100 warheads mounted on such missiles to be retained in the Asian part of the USSR and in the US. At the same time, it was proposed that the USSR and the US agree to keep equal numbers of short-range tactical missiles, provided that neither side would deploy such missiles in Europe. Moscow also agreed “not to count” the nuclear weapons belonging to Great Britain and France. A decision on intermediate-range air carriers was postponed.

And so on Dec. 8, 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the open-ended Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. The two leaders exchanged not only the paper copies of the treaty itself, but also the pens with which they signed it. At the same time, two protocols were also signed (the Protocol on Procedures Governing the Elimination of the Missile Systems and the Inspection Protocol), in addition to the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of the Data Base for the Treaty.

During the negotiations that preceded the agreement, the Soviets were operating on the assumption that the Pershing II ballistic missiles were equipped with variable-yield, earth-penetrating warheads and high-precision guidance systems. This was a new innovation not previously seen on ballistic missiles of this type. The Tomahawk cruise missiles boasted improved guidance accuracy and were a difficult target for anti-aircraft defenses.

All this, along with the short flight times (8-10 minutes) of the American nuclear missiles deployed in Europe, posed a threat to Soviet central command posts, fixed intercontinental ballistic-missile launch sites, and other elements of the Soviet nuclear infrastructure inside the European part of the USSR. Moreover, Soviet intermediate-range nuclear missiles were not capable of reaching the US from their launch sites on the European continent, while their American counterparts could potentially land deep inside Soviet territory.

As recalled by the Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Arms Control, Paul Nitze, Republican President Ronald Reagan was primarily motivated to sign the INF Treaty based on his fear of the serious threat posed to American and NATO installations in Europe and Asia by the Soviet SS-20 (RSD-10) missile, which had extended range capability and could accommodate up to three warheads each. [Department of State Bulletin. 1988. February. Vol. 88. Number 2131. p. 81.]

Soviet RSD-10 (Pioneer-3) missile complex, photo taken in mid-1980s.
Soviet RSD-10 (Pioneer-3) missile complex, photo taken in mid-1980s.

The Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles took effect on June 1, 1988, after being ratified by both parties and upon the exchange of instruments of ratification.

The Gorbachev-Reagan Treaty did not apply to sea-based or air-launched missiles, nor did it stipulate the destruction of the missiles’ nuclear warheads.

In addition to the physical destruction of the missiles of the two classes mentioned above, the two sides pledged to eliminate, no later than three years after the treaty took effect, the launchers and launch canisters, launch facilities and auxiliary equipment, missile vehicles and simulators, launch pads, and other equipment stationed at 43 sites in Russia, 66 sites in other Soviet republics (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) and in two of its Warsaw Treaty allies: at six sites in East Germany and one in Czechoslovakia, as well as at 32 sites in the US and in five Western European countries (Washington’s NATO allies of Belgium, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and West Germany).

It should be noted that in 1984, three countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Great Britain, the US, and France) combined owned 50% more nuclear warheads on intermediate-range missiles and aircraft as did the USSR.

As a result of the INF Treaty , by May 28, 1991, 2,692 intermediate- and shorter-range missiles were destroyed: the Soviet Union destroyed 1,846, and the US – 846.

At that time, this arsenal represented only 4% of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Article VI of the treaty banned both the future production and flight-testing of any intermediate-range or shorter-range missiles, as well as the production of any stages or launchers of such missiles.

The INF Treaty made provision for a meticulous regime of verification. Each side had the right to conduct on-site inspections, both within the territory of the other country, as well as within the territories of the countries where the missiles targeted for destruction were currently deployed, and they were also permitted to use national technical means of verification. In order to conduct inspections within the territories of America’s NATO allies, on Dec. 11, 1987, Washington signed corresponding agreements with Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

Over the course of 13 years of work, the two sides’ inspection teams conducted approximately 1,200 inspections of various types both inside each other’s countries, as well as in other states. On May 21, 2001, an agreement was signed in Moscow marking the completion of the regime of inspections under the INF Treaty. By mutual agreement, all inspections officially ended at midnight on May 31, 2001.

The INF Treaty was the first international treaty to formalize the complete and irreversible destruction of two classes of nuclear-armed missiles.

In October 2007, Russia proposed an initiative to add a global dimension to the provisions of the INF Treaty – suggesting, in other words, that that bilateral agreement be transformed into a multilateral treaty. It is a fact that such types of weaponized missiles are owned by a large number of states – as many as 32, according to American researchers. [Brad Hicks, George Galdorisi, and Scott Truver. The Aegis BMD Global Enterprise// Naval War College Review. 2012. Summer. pp.67-68].

At the UN Conference on Disarmament in February 2008, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov introduced a document, titled “The Basic Elements of an International Legal Agreement to Eliminate Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range (Ground-Based) Missiles, Opened For Broad International Accession” which could serve as a prototype for a future multilateral agreement. But the United States, which had initially backed this idea, quickly dropped its support. It was also rejected by Washington’s nuclear allies: Great Britain and France.

Although the 1987 treaty is termless, the parties have the right to withdraw from it, six months after giving such notice, if they decide that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the treaty have “jeopardized their supreme interests.”

But if the INF Treaty is beneficial for both sides, wouldn’t it be quite natural for both Russia and the US to scrupulously comply with all of its provisions?

To be continued…

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