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Can the INF Treaty Still be Saved?

With Donald Trump’s ultimatum to Russia ending, Norbert Röttgen argues the INF treaty must be saved.

On 2 February Donald Trump’s ultimatum to Russia to verifiably abide by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty will end. Russia can be expected not to meet this deadline. Pressing questions now present themselves: What will happen after the ultimatum has expired? How will the US react? How will Europe deal with the consequences of this decision? For the imminent failure of the INF Treaty between the US and Russia threatens the existing international security architecture.

A Short History of the INF treaty

Even before the end of the Cold War, the danger of nuclear armament on European soil seemed to be averted thanks to various disarmament agreements. The coming into force of the INF treaty in 1988 was a real breakthrough in the disarmament negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union. It prohibited the development and production of land-based intermediate-range missiles with a range between 500 and 5500km. Moreover, existing stockpiles, including launching fixtures, needed to be destroyed within the next three years. What was special about the INF treaty was that it banned an entire type of weapon and established effective control mechanisms. The mutual inspection rights ended in 2001. This was unproblematic at the time given the full implementation of the treaty.

The Situation Today

In hindsight, it was probably a mistake to limit these transparency rules. Now we are faced with a situation in which Russia has unilaterally violated the treaty by developing the SSC-8 land-based cruise missile system. The US has been expressing this suspicion for several years now, and at the last meeting of NATO foreign ministers in early December 2018, all other NATO states joined in this assessment. The Russian accusation that the US missile defence systems in Romania violated the INF Treaty, on the other hand, is unfounded. The system is purely defensive: it is neither equipped for offensive measures nor was it tested for that purpose. It is also not oriented towards Russia but towards the Middle East’s nuclear threat to Europe.

A central problem of the INF treaty, however, is that only the US and Russia are bound by the ban on land-based medium-range missiles, although other countries such as China, Pakistan, and Iran now have this type of weapon. A multilateral follow-up treaty is difficult to negotiate, if only because 95 percent of China’s missile arsenal consists of medium-range missiles.

The deadline that President Trump set for Russia to destroy all SSC-8 missiles ends at the beginning of February. Russia will not adhere to this. A termination and suspension of the INF treaty by the USA is thus to be expected.

What to Do Now?

Germany, together with its European partners, should insist that even after this period’s expiry, the termination of the agreement should not become an automatic process. Instead, the conflict resolution mechanisms laid down therein must be used. Above all, this includes the Special Verification Commission, which was set up as a platform for the exchange of information on breaches of treaty. Transparency must be restored through mutual inspections and the exchange of data. The preservation of the treaty is in the interest of NATO states,—and thus also in the interest of the US—because a termination would leave Russia without set limits. Above all, it is in the interest of both sides to curb the armament efforts of other states. The aim of the talks must therefore not only be to preserve the INF treaty, but also to further develop it. Germany should use its seat on the UN Security Council in tandem with its European partners to make arms control and disarmament a central security and peace issue on the agenda.


Norbert Röttgen is Member of the German Parliament, chairman of its Foreign Affairs Committee, and a Dahrendorf Forum Committee member.

A German version of this article was published in the magazine “Die Bundeswehr”.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.