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Mourning the INF Treaty

The United States Is Not Better for Withdrawing

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF treaty at the White House, December 1987 REUTERS

On February 1, the Trump administration made official what had been in the offing for some time: the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed in 1987, the treaty banned the United States and Russia from developing or deploying any ground-launched missiles that could travel between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or about 300 to 3,400 miles. Washington claims—correctly—that Russia is building and testing systems prohibited by the treaty, including a new cruise missile that the United States claims can travel at prohibited ranges. The Russians have responded by announcing their own plans to withdraw and develop new weapons. 

The INF Treaty was one of the few arms control agreements that became an institution in its own right. The first treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear delivery systems, it was the foundation for denuclearizing most of Europe. Today, Russia is violating the agreement, and the Trump administration is right to protest. But provocative as Russia’s cheating may be, the U.S. decision to walk away rather than make a serious effort to bring Moscow back into compliance will undermine the long-term security of both Europe and the United States. 

The INF Treaty removed the most dangerous nuclear weapons from European soil: “intermediate range” weapons that are meant neither for the battlefield nor for long-distance strategic strikes but for nuclear attacks deep into NATO or Russian territory. The limited reach and short flight times of these weapons ideally suited them for a large but geographically confined theater, such as Cold War Europe. Dramatically outgunned and overmatched in terms of conventional firepower, NATO deliberately placed these nuclear missiles in the path of Soviet forces. If Moscow invaded Western Europe, its advancing troops would force NATO leaders to use or lose these weapons, potentially setting off a nuclear war. This risk, the thinking went, would deter the Soviets from trying to overrun Europe.

But placing these arms on the frontlines of a possible East-West war was immensely destabilizing, as it gave

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