U.S Withdrawal From The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: The New Normative Order; A Complex Nightmare And Implications For Global Security.

By Dignity Ekop.


A landmark nuclear arms control agreement entered into by the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1987 faces possible collapse. On October 20, 2018, President Trump announced that Washington will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and on October 22, John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser flew to Moscow to hold high level talks with top Russian officials including President Putin on the planned US withdrawal. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was put in place in the final days of the cold war to eliminate all conventional and nuclear missiles and missile launchers with range target capability between 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Global attempts at nuclear disarmament dates back to the 20th century where world leaders had attempted to create a peaceful planet by limiting the development, stockpiling and deployment of arms. The aftermath of the second world war and the recurrent threats of nuclear confrontations are largely responsible for efforts within the last six decades to limit, control and regulate the global nuclear arms equation. From the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 which prohibited above ground missile testing. The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty of 1968 where majority of countries of the world including non nuclear powers made a positive commitment to renounce development of nuclear weapons and give up on existing ones. The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT 1 & SALT 11) Agreements of 1972 and 1979 which placed a cap and banned the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons. SALT 1 led to the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty  (New Start) 2010. However the collapse of communism and the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as Secretary General of the Soviet Union offered a new window for world peace and stability.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed on the 8th of December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan of the US and Mikhail Gorbachev, the then Secretary General of the Soviet Union. The U.S senate gave its ratification on 27th May, 1988. The Treaty became effective on 1st June 1988. The INF Treaty initially applied only to the US and the Soviets but in 1991, its membership was expanded to include successor states of the former Soviet Union like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The Treaty majorly prohibits parties from possessing, producing and test running ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Article 13 of the Treaty provides for the establishment of the Special Verification Commission, an independent watchdog with unfettered access and power to inspect and ensure compliance and enforcement of the Treaty including resolution of disputes arising from it.

The U.S and Russia have not hidden their desire to accumulate strategic missiles including capability to deploy them but with the entrance of countries like China, Iran and North Korea into the global nuclear weapons equation, the world has stepped further into nuclear uncertainty. A situation that has prompted the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight to reflect the unsettling dynamics of our nuclear reality. The INF Treaty had prescribed 1st of June 1991 as a deadline for state parties to act. As of 1st June 1991, a total of 2,692 prohibited weapons were destroyed including 109 ground launched cruise missiles. 1846  from the Soviets and 846 from the Americans. The sudden news of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty will be received with shock and discomfort in Europe especially Western Europe given its proximity to Russia and the likelihood of being caught in the cross fire in the event of unexpected nuclear confrontations between Washington and Moscow. Should Russia decide to deploy its intermediate range missiles, western europe could be subjected to severe nuclear jeopardy. That situation may be probable inview of Trump’s recent suggestion of interest to expand US military bases in Poland and Romania with capability to launch ballistic missiles. An action Russia views as provocative and undermining Russia’s security. Beyond Washington’s strategic defence policy, historically, the security of Europe was a major factor behind the INF Treaty. Following the deployment of Russia’s SS20 missile launchers in Russian territories near the border with Europe in 1977, the continent was rattled especially the baltic states. The Russian SS20 is an intercontinental ballistic missile with supersonic speed and accuracy with an offensive but concealable multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle(MIRV) and a delivery capability of four nuclear warheads with up to 200 kilotons each. The SS20 was considered a game changer in the nuclear theatre. The safety of western europe forced the US and NATO allies to formulate and adopt the NATO Double Track Decision in 1979.



Several issues and controversies have continued to undermine the viability of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Primarily, the Treaty has been criticised by many analysts as a cold war relic considering the fact that nuclear players such as Iran, North Korea and China are not signatories hence, they are not regulated by the Treaty from developing their missile systems. The US withdrawal could as well be a move to counter China’s growing strategic military capabilities and Beijing’s attitude of repeatedly ignoring insinuations to sign up to the Treaty and limit its weapons development in the Pacific. Interestingly, John Bolton, the US national security adviser who is largely viewed as a neo conservative has been a long time critic of the agreement as “an obsolete nuclear treaty”. Trump’s decision to withdraw may however escalate nuclear tensions with the unverified speculations that the US plans to leverage the Treaty exit to develop and deploy more weapons and missiles in Japan in response to China’s growing threat. China’s non membership of the INF Treaty seem to create a military asymmetry the US is uncomfortable with but given the potential diplomatic challenges of deploying ground launched missiles within the East Asia theatre, it is doubtful that the US will be willing to square up to it. This line of thought seem more plausible considering the fact that the US Seventh Fleet is believed to have sufficient missile capability to crumble a significant portion of China’s nuclear assets and missile defence system. Notwithstanding, the decision to ditch the Treaty may probably be part of a robust and strategic quest to keep China in check and reestablish Washington’s geopolitical and military supremcy in East Asia.



The United States and Russia have been consistent in their accusations and counter accusations of violation and potential violation of the INF Treaty. In 2008, Washington accused Moscow of violating the INF Treaty by testing  the SSC-8 cruise missile. Russia on the other hand considers the US attempt to bolster its strategic presence in the balkan region by expanding US military bases in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria as a violation of the terms contained in the Treaty. In 2016 and 2017, the US Administration activated Article 13 of the INF Treaty and summoned 2 separate meetings of the Special Verification Commission to discuss Russian non compliance. In early 2018, the US Department of Commerce launched fresh round of sanctions on Russian companies believed to be involved in the development of missiles prohibited under the INF Treaty. Towards the end of 2017, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO was compelled to voice concern over allegations of Russian violation of the Treaty. Russia has however remained firm and consistent in denying all allegations of violations and in addition has accused the US of nuclear blackmail and being the actual violator of the Treaty citing Washington’s ballistic target missiles development program. With the allegations and counter allegations, there seem to be no end to the diplomatic bickering.



President Trump’s election and his unconventional foreign policy objectives has significantly shifted and altered the international normative order in many respects. Under the 2019 US National Defence Authorization Act, a whopping 717 billion dollars defence budget has been approved. Of that figure, over 4 billion dollars has been set aside for the development of 3 littoral combat ships, a ford class aircraft carrier, 6 icebreakers and a columbia class ballistic missile submarine. These points to the shift in Trump’s Administration’s thinking from diplomacy to military superiority. A departure from the Obama era, largely characterised by diplomatic pressure and engagement.

There’s however no doubt that under customary international law, a material breach of a bilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles the other party to invoke the breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation in whole or in part as provided by Article 60 (1) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. However given the serious diplomatic and security underpinning of the INF Treaty and the undesirable situation the world could be thrown into if the Treaty is ditched, it is doubtful but not improbable that Washington will follow through with the withdrawal. Some experts are of the opinion that the announcement by Trump could as well be a strategy to force renegotiation of the Treaty and compel China and other nuclear players to sign up to it.

It is important to note that under Article 15 of the INF Treaty, the conditions and procedure for withdrawal from the Treaty provides that the Treaty shall be of unlimited duration and each Party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of the Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to withdraw to the other Party 6 months prior to withdrawal from this Treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.

So far, there has been no formal Notice containing what extraordinary event is prompting the withdrawal but it does appear that satisfying that termination clause will not pose any legal obstacle. I hold the opinion that the major consideration will be the expediency or otherwise of abandoning the Treaty at this crucial period and how that may shape perception of the U.S around the world as an unfaithful party to international agreements considering the accelerated pace with which Washington has withdrawn or threatened to withdraw from a number of key international treaties and agreements including the Paris Climate Accord, the UN Human Rights Council, the Treaty of Amity, the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, UNESCO and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.



A collapse of the INF Treaty will unshackle Russia’s nuclear hunger, allow U.S nuclear missile sophistication, encourage China to stockpile more nuclear warheads and inspire renegades like Iran and North Korea who are nevertheless non parties to the INF Treaty and that will in all certainty spark a renewed and uncontrolled arms race and roll back many decades of diplomatic efforts to keep the planet from potential nuclear apocalypse. Ditching it will further put the world into a dangerous security twist and foist grave nuclear uncertainty on the globe. The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has been blunt on what would be Russia’s response if the US follows through with the withdrawal. On October 22, 2018, Lavrov told reporters at the Kremlin that in the event that Washington withdraws from the Treaty, Russia will take every step to shore up its defence and nuclear capabilities to achieve parity. The implication of that means an unrestrained stockpiling of nukes on an unimaginable scale. That will certainly undermine global stability. On the European front, there is tension and unease over the fate of the INF Treaty. spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a recent statement that “The INF contributed to the end of the cold war and constitutes a pillar of European security architecture since it entered into force 30 years ago. The world doesn’t need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability.”

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in a statement issued by the Bulletin’s CEO Rachel Bronson on 25th January 2018 suggest the Bulletin has moved its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight, a stark reflection that the world is on the cusp of a potential nuclear fall out. It furthers the argument that the world may be inching towards a nuclear tipping point with very lethal consequences. A crisis may be brewing unless all key players and stake holders recommit to nuclear arms control agreements and negotiations. In a potential nuclear confrontations, while Russia, its allies and the West will be the theatres of action, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world will be the victims of collateral nuclear catastrophe.



In the final analysis, balancing strategic interests and diplomacy may be complicated but the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will be a complex nightmare. I hold the strong view that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.


Dignity Ekop is a lawyer, international relations & international law researcher, Associate in the dispute resolution unit of a top-tier law firm in Lagos and Summer 2019 LL.M candidate at the Fletcher School of Governance & Diplomacy, Medford. He can be reached at dignityekop@gmail.com

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