The United States is set to withdraw from the INF treaty on February 2, which could lower the threshold for accidental nuclear war, particularly with China in the mix.
The “Doomsday Clock”, unveiled every year by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, remains at a dangerous two minutes to midnight.
The clock measures how close are we to the apocalyptic midnight — the hour when the human civilisation is predicted to end in a man-made catastrophe.
The last time scientists judged the world was this close to disaster was in 1953, during the early volatility of the Cold War and the nuclear standoff that ensued.
This time, it’s the impending collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) Agreement, and Moscow and Washington’s emphasis on modernising their nuclear forces, instead of dismantling them.
What’s it all about?
The Trump administration delivered an ultimatum to Russia, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warning that the United States will no longer “bury our head in the sand”, following an accusation that Russia had allegedly violated the INF.
The Cold War-era treaty dates back to 1987, a turning point in the arms race between the United States and Russia when both sides agreeing to stop producing missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
The Cold War powers agreed that mid-range nuclear weapons made it easier to accidentally trigger nuclear conflict. It was nearly impossible to tell the difference between normal or nuclear warhead-equipped missiles, with the possibility of triggering a nuclear race or war with every missile deployment, launch or test.
Pompeo stated that Russia had only 60 days to comply with the terms of the treaty, or the United States would withdraw from the historic agreement, prompting concerns over a renewed arms race between the world powers.
The clock runs out on February 2, and no solution is in sight.
You’re the reason I’m leaving
The warning followed a report by Daniel Coats, US Director of National Intelligence, revealing that Russia had developed the 9M729 ‘Novator’ missile in 2015, a violation of the treaty. Russia hid the testing of the ground missile and its capabilities from treaty inspections, before eventually deploying “multiple battalions” of the banned weapon.
The missile is a “direct conventional and nuclear threat against most of Europe and parts of Asia,” said Coats.
But the United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty since 2014, with little evidence to support its claim.
Losing the blame game
US and Russian officials met in Geneva on January 15 to discuss compliance issues with the INF, while Russia exhibited the 9M729 missile to military attaches in Moscow to ease concerns, claiming that they did not violate the maximum range of the treaty (480 km). Their efforts had no effect.
The fact that the US beat Russia to a withdrawal however, handed the Kremlin a major public relations victory.
Meanwhile, Russia denied all charges, and countered with three of their own. Two of the charges don’t hold up to scrutiny, but the third may be grounded in fact.
Russia accused the US of stationing its Mk-41 launcher in its Aegis Ashore Facility in Romania, which has been confirmed by many reports. Less well known is that the launcher can fire missiles of any kind, including mid-range nuclear warheads.
Who killed the treaty?
Following the failed talks, and days ahead of the US withdrawal from the critical treaty, the US has begun the production of low-yield nuclear warheads, which could also lower the threshold for nuclear conflict.
Ahead of the US planned withdrawal, this has sparked concerns of an impending arms race.
But the treaty should have prevented the Russia from building the ‘Novator’, which can strike NATO allies with little warning in minutes. The treaty’s main criticism was that it only limited the US and Russia, with no restrictions on China, Iran, North Korea or other rising world powers.
The Red Dragon
China has expressed no interest in joining the INF treaty.
With growing turbulence in the South China sea, the US is hard pressed to contain China as it catches up on the technological advantage that the United States once exclusively enjoyed.
The military balance is shifting, and not in the United State’s favor.
China recently deployed a ‘Carrier Killer’ intermediate nuclear-capable missile, the Dong Feng-26, which translates to ‘East Wind’. Difficult to shoot down, the ballistic missile is able to adjust position mid-flight, and has the potential to cripple or destroy an aircraft carrier with a range of 4,500 km.
As part of a multi-layered defence strategy, the DF-26 allows China to neutralise or destroy prized US aircraft carrier from a distance. The United States’ most recent aircraft carrier cost $13 billion, while a volley of DF-26 missiles would cost less than $20 million, putting the US at a severe strategic disadvantage.
The aircraft carrier holds a prized role in any navy, serving as a launch base for air strikes and beach invasions. US aircraft carriers form the backbone of its navy, and are key to its force projection.
The impending withdrawal from the INF treaty may be motivated by a policy of Chinese containment.
Admiral Harry Harris, former commander of Pacific Command, stated, “We have no ground-based [missile] capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence to the [INF] treaty.”
In his testimony to Congress, he cited Chinese cutting-edge developments on weapons systems that “far outrange US systems”.
“They have done this at a fraction of the cost of some of our more expensive systems. Constrained in part by our adherence to the INF treaty, the US has fallen behind in our ability to match the long-range fires capabilities of the new era,” he added.
Top-level White House officials have not shied away from revealing the true drive behind the treaty withdrawal.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton commented on the restrictions of the INF treaty being in the interest of China, “If I were Chinese, I would say the same thing. Why not have the Americans bound, and the Chinese not bound?”
More recently, Bolton tried to convince Moscow that Chinese missiles are a threat to “the heart of Russia”.
“We see China, Iran, North Korea all developing capabilities which would violate the treaty if they were parties to it. So the possibility that could have existed 15 years ago to enlarge the treaty and make it universal today just simply was not practical,” he added.
The US approach to the INF treaty has been one of ultimatums thus far, and shows no signs of goodwill.
In his initial announcement of the pending withdrawal, Pompeo stated: “The burden falls on Russia to make the necessary changes, only they can save this treaty.”
Fallout and a renewed arms race
Russia however, is not likely to respond to US ultimatums, or back down from US charges given that it would mean admitting to a violation in the first place, without a US overture of the same.
The consequences of the INF’s collapse are far-reaching, and will have deep effects on global security and nuclear disarmament.
The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged the US and Russia to resume talks and extend the The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), in response to the ratcheting tensions between the two states.
START took place between the US and Soviet Union in 1991, and was hailed as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Resuming talks with the shadow of non-compliance to the INF treaty however, is not likely to lead to tangible outcomes.
US General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke out against it, finding it “difficult to envision progress in extending (New START)” given the breakdown of the INF.
Trump’s staunch position draw largely on Bolton, who has come under question regarding his capacity to act as a national security adviser. Bolton was formerly a lawyer, with no experience as a strategist, and has consistently expressed his dislike of international organisations.
In his first speech as a national security adviser, he called for the end of the International Criminal Court, and has previously criticised the United Nations as well.
Who loses, who wins?
Bolton’s push for end of the INF treaty may prove profitable to US arms industries however, a fact not lost on Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to address this.
"American people should also think about the rationality of their government’s plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which will trigger a new arms race. If it serves someone’s interest, it is the US military-industrial complex since it promises new large orders. But the life of Americans will inevitably become less secure," he said in a statement.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg commented on the detriments of the treaty’s collapse, stating: “NATO is unlikely to deploy more nuclear weapons to Europe should an arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow collapse.”
With a worsening security climate and more belligerent China, it remains to be seen whether the INF treaty can be salvaged for changed times. The price of failed dialogue this time is drastic however, giving rise to a new arms race, a lowered threshold for nuclear conflict and a new cold war.