President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said new missiles being developed by Russia would point towards the United States if Washington decided to send missiles to Europe. Putin’s remarks came after both Russia and the US decided to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. European leaders have expressed concern over the possibility of a new arms race following the death of the treaty. While Putin has said he would react only if the United States made the first move, his statement is the strongest from Russia on this issue so far.
What is the INF treaty?
Concern over intermediate-range missiles emerged in the mid-1970s after the erstwhile USSR deployed the nuclear-tipped RSD-10 Pioneer (NATO reporting name SS-20 Saber), whose 4,700-5,000 km range put Western Europe in the crosshairs. In 1979, NATO responded with its ‘dual track’ strategy, pushing for the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear armed US missiles on European territories while also emphasising the need for negotiations with Moscow.
After Mikhail Gorbachev took over as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, the Soviet Union put forth a plan to restrict the number of SS-20 warheads. Encouraged, the US too showed interest in limiting its own intermediate-range missiles across the world. Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan agreed to sign a comprehensive intermediate-range missile elimination agreement which culminated in the INF treaty of December 8, 1987.
Both the US and USSR tamped down on their possession, production, and flight-testing of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with 500-5,500-km ranges. However, air-delivered and sea-based missiles were not covered by the treaty. All such existing weapons had to be destroyed within three years of the signing of the treaty. The treaty laid out a comprehensive inspection protocol, whereby each of the parties could inspect and monitor each others’ elimination process. The treaty also clarified that each of the parties could withdraw from the treaty with a six-month notice. Nearly 2,700 missiles were destroyed following the signing of the treaty.
In 1991, the treaty was expanded to include Russia and the successor states of the former USSR.
Why did Russia and America withdraw from the INF treaty?
Russia had first raised concerns over the treaty in the mid-2000s, saying it did not apply to other countries with missile capabilities. In 2007, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Yuri Baluyevsky suggested that Russia was planning to withdraw from the treaty. However, in October, 2007 both countries issued a statement to the United Nations General Assembly reaffirming their commitment to the treaty.
Since 2013, however, both Russia and America have accused each other of violating terms of the treaty. In 2016, when America celebrated the launch of a missile defence system in Europe, Russia accused the former of violating the treaty. Russian authorities also suggested that American deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles was against the treaty.
The US on the other hand accused Russia of having violated the treaty since 2008, when it tested the SSC-8 cruise missile. On October 20, 2018, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the treaty, and on February 2 this year he officially suspended it. Russia responded with a similar move the same day, stating that it would be developing missiles previously forbidden by the treaty.
Apart from the threat that both America and Russia perceived from each other, the increasing missile production by China is also being cited as one of the reasons for the suspension of the treaty.
Can this lead to a new arms race?
The decision to suspend the treaty was met with disappointment across Europe. Several leaders expressed concern over security and the possibility of a new arms race. Co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Carl Bildt tweeted that the end of the treaty would allow Russia to deploy cruise missiles that would threaten European security. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called the decision “regrettable”. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Trump to express concern. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called the treaty a “pillar of European security”, and expressed fears of a new arms race.
The US has said it is not developing mid-range missiles at the moment. But it has also indicated the possibility of a course-change if the two sides did not come to an agreement. Russia on the other hand, had stated in October last year that it would maintain parity and would be willing to engage in dialogue. However, the latest development in Moscow suggests a hardening of Putin’s stand.