Why Russia just exited a crucial nuclear treaty, and its implications

Having announced Russia’s plan to exit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in March, President Vladimir Putin on July 2 signed a bill to withdraw the country from the pivotal nuclear arms control agreement.

Putin’s decree comes just months after the US withdrew from the treaty, on the heels of disagreement over Russia’s refusal to comply with some of the limitations on the permissible range of nuclear weapons.

The INF treaty, signed in 1987, has been crucial to the framework of arms control and global security ever since the Cold War.

The foundation of the INF treaty

When former US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty, it was with the mutual understanding that all land-based (ground-launched) nukes would be banned from production, testing or deployment for the foreseeable future.

The treaty required both Cold War-era rivals to destroy their arsenal of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles (500-5,500km), including all production and testing.

Compared to intercontinental ballistic missiles, the intermediate ones take a shorter time to reach targets. This makes it difficult for decision-makers to respond in a timely fashion and raised the stakes in case of a false warning.

Why did the US withdraw?

When US President Donald Trump announced US’ pullout from the INF treaty in February, it may not have come as surprise but dealt a heavy blow, nonetheless, to the already brittle international corporation, when it came to nuclear non-proliferation.

It has deepened fears of a nuclear war led by a further deterioration in US-Russia relations.

Gorbachev responded last year, when the White House first broached the possibility of withdrawal, saying: “Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements … Do they really not understand in Washington what this could lead to?”

The US decision to withdraw left Putin with six months to comply with the INF treaty, before the suspension becomes official in August. Trump’s main grouse with the pact was that Russia had whittled some of its terms down, to serve its own nuclear ambitions, thereby violating the treaty.

Specifically, he accused Kremlin of green-lighting the development of a “prohibited” missile, which, according to US officials, could be launched at a moment’s notice on Europe.

US vis-a-vis other nuclear powers

Russia, however, denied these claims, saying the missile fell well outside the treaty’s limits. Despite this, Trump removed the US from the pact, leaving Putin no choice but to follow suit, thus effectively suspending Russia’s obligations to the treaty.

A few weeks ago, Russia notably vetoed a US-led bid at the United Nations Security Council to declare North Korea—another nuclear-armed US rival—violated sanctions on petroleum imports.

Russia along with China also stood up against US’ tyranny of sanctions against Iran, aimed primarily at pressurising the Islamic Republic to hammer out a better nuclear deal.

In the latter case too, the Trump administration withdrew last year from the Obama era-nuclear agreement that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment. Pushing back against crippling oil sanctions, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani announced he would resume stockpiling weapons-grade uranium.

Worsening relations

Meanwhile, the US President has mentioned that ties with Moscow have not soured in the last four years, despite anxieties over Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.

He joked about the fact at the recently concluded G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, nearly a year after publicly after accepting Putin’s denial of interference.

The Russian leader, who consolidated his power in Kremlin for the fourth time last year, voiced his concerns over worsening relations with the West in Osaka, citing US-imposed sanctions as a factor.

How India figures in the web

Following the summit, the US Senate also passed a key legislation to elevate India’s status to be on par with NATO allies; this, critics suspect, is aimed at strengthening regional security against China and turn India into a dumping ground for American military hardware.

New Delhi has had a longstanding relationship with Moscow in terms of defence trade and gets most of its weapons from Russia to this day. But the Modi government has massively stepped up bilateral talks with the US, especially on security, defence, counter-terrorism, and strategic lines.

Mysteriously enough, the US has, on several occasions, signalled its endorsement of nuclear proliferation in India, even signing a hefty deal to fund six reactors across the subcontinent last year.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

nuclear treatyus-russiaVladimir Putin