The death of the INF treaty is but a last piece in the story of how the half-century effort to control nuclear weapons and stabilize the U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship perished. When the INF treaty disappears, as key members of the Trump Administration are keen to see, the way that it ends will almost certainly spell the end to U.S.-Russian strategic arms control.
From the start of the original SALT negotiations in 1969 to our day, in a halting and often tortuous process, the two countries first agreed to puts limits on the number of ballistic missile launchers possessed by each and to call off an offense-defense race by limiting anti-ballistic missile defense systems. In subsequent SALT and START agreements they gradually reduced launchers and warheads (in the latter case from nearly 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 14,000 today), and in 1987 in the INF treaty they eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons. During the Soviet Union’s last months, by reciprocal executive agreements, they pledged to reduce substantially and in some cases to eliminate entirely tactical or “battlefield” nuclear weapons. At the same time, under the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), the two countries linked efforts to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction throughout the territories of the former Soviet Union.
In what turned out to be the last step forward, the New START agreement, signed in 2010, reduced each side’s deployed nuclear warheads to 1550 and deployed and non-deployed launchers to 800. There would henceforth be no further arms control agreements nor even any negotiations over what might come next.
In the interim, however, the two sides gradually pulled bricks from the edifice that they had painfully constructed over decades. In 2002 the United States withdrew from the ABM agreement, which after a long delay, has in the new U.S.-Russian Cold War again brought the two sides to the brink of a nuclear offense-defense race. That same year Russia withdrew from the recently signed START II agreement that banned multiple-independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) on ICBMs, thereby, axing a measure intended to reinforce the principle of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the foundation for the U.S.-Russian concept of strategic stability. In 2005, the Russian side made plain that it had no interest in further limiting tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, unless the United States withdrew all of its (200) B-61 bombs, and subsequently refused to return to the subject. In 2012 Russia announced that it was pulling the plug on the CTR program, and the anemic effort to find an alternative faltered amidst tensions over the Ukrainian crisis.