What is the INF Treaty?
INF stands for "Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces." U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty in 1987. The treaty bans land-based missiles with a range between 310 and 3420 miles (500 to 5500 km), and it only applies to the U.S. and Russia. Both countries can still have sea-based and air-launched missiles with this range.
Why is the U.S. withdrawing from the INF Treaty?
On October 20, 2018, President Trump announced at a campaign rally that the U.S. would pull out of the treaty. President Trump has said that Russia is violating the treaty. He has also complained that China is not bound by the treaty. U.S. officials are concerned about a Chinese arms build-up in the Pacific and want the option to counter it with their own intermediate-range missiles. The rationale seems to be that the U.S. is at a disadvantage by complying with the treaty when Russia is not and China does not have to.
Is it true that Russia is violating the treaty?
Almost certainly, yes. In 2017, the U.S. said that Russia had deployed a cruise missile that violated the terms of the treaty. In earlier years, the Obama Administration accused Russia of developing and testing a missile that violated the treaty. The consistent message across administrations and over the course of several years suggests the U.S. has good evidence of the violation.
What are the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal?
If the treaty no longer exists, then Russia can build and deploy intermediate range missiles without any limits. Missiles in the banned range are not a threat to the United States, but they do threaten U.S. Allies in Europe. The treaty provided a great deal of security to European partners. Without it, they are more vulnerable.
President Trump has also said that the U.S. will begin building intermediate-range missiles if Russia and China do not agree to a deal. Congress would need to fund such a program, and it is not clear how realistic that scenario is. In Europe, Allies would need to agree to host the missiles on their territory. There could be stiff opposition in Europe to hosting U.S. intermediate-range missiles. Even so, this withdrawal raises fears of a Cold-War-style arms race—one we ended more than 30 years ago.
Are there other options besides scrapping the treaty?
The U.S. is already working on sea-based and air-launched missiles that don't violate the treaty and that counter Russian capability. And, the U.S. could urge European Allies to join the diplomatic push to get Russia to modify it's missile to a treaty-compliant range. In the end, if Russia is determined to cheat, there may be no saving this treaty. But, the U.S. has little to gain from being the first to withdraw. It will embolden Russia, threaten the security of our Allies, and it will not make the U.S. any safer.