What the US and Russia abandoning nuclear treaty means for India

Following in US’ footsteps, Russia announced Saturday that it would abandon a centrepiece nuclear arms control treaty. The declaration has incited global concern and the threat of a new arms race, not only between the US and Russia, but also with China, which was never a signatory of the soon-to-be obsolete 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

“Our American partners announced they were suspending their participation in the treaty, and we will do the same. They have announced they will conduct research and development, and we will act accordingly,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised address.

The move follows five years of accusations against Moscow for allegedly violating the crucial Reagan-era agreement, which it has denied. The treaty is considered the last of its kind and a “gold standard” for arms control agreements.

Critics also suspect that Washington’s withdrawal is a way of justifying its own nuclear modernisation efforts, especially after the US recently began building its first long-range nuclear weapons for the first time since 1991.

What the US claims

On Friday, Trump attacked Moscow again, for allegedly violating the INF treaty with “impunity”. He accused them of developing and deploying banned land-based cruise and ballistic missiles having a 500-5,500-.

Perceiving threats posed by Trump’s unilateral instincts and Putin’s military readiness, NATO allies in Western Europe have strongly backed Washington and urged Moscow to save the treaty by complying.

Trump said in a statement that the US will “move forward” with developing its own military response options to Russia’s new missiles and use them to target Western Europe. This back-and-forth brings back memories of the dreaded Cold War era, marking the latest international defence cooperation the US may leave.

National Security Advisor John R Bolton, a key figure in US’ withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, is a major force in contriving this departure as well; news of this development had leaked last October.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Russia’s “continued noncompliance has jeopardized United States’ supreme interests”. He warned that the treaty will terminate in six months unless Moscow returns to “full and verifiable compliance” and destroys its growing arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and launchers.

The move also leaves another accord, New Start, in the lurch. It’s responsible for driving American and Russian nuclear arsenals to their lowest capacities in nearly 60 years. It is, however, unclear if New Start will renewed after its expiration in 2021, a few weeks after the new US president takes charge.

Russia’s response

Moscow has counter-accused Washington of making false claims to justify its pullout and shift the blame for the pact’s demise onto Russia.

Kremlin officials have strongly denied any breach of the treaty’s provisions, clarifying that the contentious missile is part of the Iskander-M missile system and has a maximum range of 480 .

Shortly after the US gave notice of its intention to withdraw, Putin pulled the plug and further instructed the military to develop new land-based intermediate-range weapons, previously banned under the treaty. He, however, stressed that Russia won’t deploy them unless the US did first.

“We will respond quid pro quo,” the Russian leader said in a televised meeting with his foreign and defence ministers on Saturday. “Russia will not station intermediate-range weapons in Europe or other regions until similar US weapons appear in those regions.”

What has the US been up to?

The Russian Defence Ministry further released satellite imagery of US missile maker Raytheon’s new plants in Arizona. It said the expansion began in 2017 when the US Congress ratified funding for developing intermediate-range weapons.

This “irrefutable proof”, it claimed, suggests that the US administration had decided to pull out of the treaty years before making unfounded claims of Russian violations.

Another recent announcement by the US Energy Department claimed that the production of a new warhead as a strategic weapon was underway for the first time in 28 years, and “on track” for delivery by the end of this fiscal. It’s for the long-range weapons devised to reach Russia, China or North Korea and to generate half the impact of the Hiroshima blast.

While the overhaul of America’s aging nuclear arsenal and facilities began under Barack Obama, the efforts have accelerated under Trump. Last month, Trump indicated that the time had come to embrace a new missile defence strategy. “For too long, we have been held back by self-imposed limits, while foreign competitors grow and advance more than we have over the years,” he’d said at the Pentagon.

What lies ahead

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that the to-be-developed missiles would include a land-based version of the Kalibr ship-based cruise missile and a new hypersonic intermediate-range ballistic missile.

“We must not and will not be drawn into a costly arms race,” the Russian leader said, further affirming that Moscow is open to talks with Washington, provided US took the first step. Diplomatic negotiations in the next six months, however, seem unlikely.

Shortly after suspending the accord, Trump had said, “I hope we’re able to get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better,” although he did not clarify what he meant by “everybody”.

If a new arms race begins, it will be expensive for the US, 87 times the cost of building the US-Mexico border wall, according to the New York Times. Democrats have condemned the decision and pledged to introduce a legislation seeking to stop the country’s withdrawal from the treaty.

Why it matters

The collapse of the INF Treaty has raised fears of accelerating a Cold War-like showdown, when the US and USSR both deployed intermediate-range missiles.

Trump’s move also reflected his administration’s view that the pact was an obstacle to efforts needed to counter intermediate-range missiles deployed by China, whose growing arsenal consists of missiles that fall in ranges prohibited by the treaty.

Intermediate-range missiles can be particularly as they only take a few minutes to reach their targets, leaving no time for decision-makers and raising the likelihood of a global nuclear conflict over a false launch warning. Whether or not the US will escalate by deploying new weapons against China’s growing dominance in the Western Pacific will set the stage for further tension.

How does this affect India?

Trump has intimated that he is willing to tender another denuclearisation agreement among all countries that presently field such weapons, as opposed to the current bilateral treaty that applies only to Russia and the US, two of the world’s largest hoarders of nuclear arms.

The alternative would require China, India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea to be willing to curb or eliminate their arsenal, a much more ambitious task than negotiating a treaty with Russia.

At a time when the regional rivalry between India and China is fuelled by violent border conflicts and increasing economic and strategic competition in Asia, the revival of the Quadrilateral dialogue with Japan, Australia the US may draw the subcontinent into the impending nuclear arms race against US rivals, China and Russia. American intelligence agencies’ warned this week that Russia and China were “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.”

Moreover, India’s own growing arsenal and increased spending in nuclear armament will pave the way for its involvement in the event of a full-blown Cold War. But the fact that Russia is its biggest weapons supplier, closely followed by the US, puts the subcontinent in a direct line of conflict should it have to choose sides in the event of a nuclear war.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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