The US Withdraws from the INF Treaty: The Day After Challenges

By Robbin Laird

On August 2, 2019, NATO issued a statement with regard to the US decision to withdraw from the INF treaty.

Russia today remains in violation of the INF Treaty, despite years of U.S. and Allied engagement, including a final opportunity over six months to honour its Treaty obligations. As a result, the United States decision to withdraw from the Treaty, a decision fully supported by NATO Allies, is now taking effect.

Russia bears sole responsibility for the demise of the Treaty. We regret that Russia has shown no willingness and taken no demonstrable steps to return to compliance with its international obligations. A situation whereby the United States fully abides by the Treaty, and Russia does not, is not sustainable.

NATO will respond in a measured and responsible way to the significant risks posed by the Russian 9M729 missile to Allied security. We have agreed a balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures to ensure NATO’s deterrence and defence posture remains credible and effective.

Allies are firmly committed to the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Therefore, we will continue to uphold, support, and further strengthen arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation, as a key element of Euro-Atlantic security, taking into account the prevailing security environment. NATO also continues to aspire to a constructive relationship with Russia, when Russia’s actions make that possible.

There is little doubt that Russia has violated the treaty.

Simply complying and hoping the problem goes away is not a policy; it is wishful thinking, which too often characterizes what passes for arms control propositions.

But if one goes back to the 1980s when the conditions for an INF treaty were created, President Reagan and his Administration supported, generated and pursued what NATO referred to as a two-track solution.

On the one hand, the US and NATO prepared a land based missile response, designed to not allow the new SS-20s to decouple the United States from NATO Europe in times of crisis. But on the other hand, the US and NATO pursued negotiations with the Soviets to eliminate this class of weapons from both side’s arsenals.

More generally, strategic arms negotiations were not ends in themselves, which often seems the case in the so-called arms control community, but really were an adjunct to defense planning and to preparing for crisis management situations. This latter goal was facilitated by aligning both sides in the case of US and Soviet negotiations to understand each other and to draw realistic conclusions with regard to the disadvantages of unilateral arms buildups in the nuclear arena.

I write a book in the 1980s with Dale Herspring, who at the time was in the US State Department, on the strategic arms control process which laid out in detail how such an approach operated between the two states, the US and the Soviet Union.

I also wrote a number of books on the European nuclear issues in the 1980s which highlighted how arms control and arms modernization were interwove in shaping ways ahead to contain the threat but prepare for crisis management as well.

These books were based on extensive travel in Western Europe and dealings with the Reagan Administration as well.

A very simple point was that nuclear modernization is and will always about warfighting and politics at the same time. And now with full spectrum crisis management as the key challenge facing the liberal democracies, the mix of warfighting forces with political crisis management skills is central.

There are clearly opportunities to leverage from withdrawing from the INF treaty for the United States, largely to be gained in the Pacific. The INF treaty never applied to the Chinese and they have built a wide range of missiles which would have been prohibited if they signed and complied with the treaty.

The question of course is who would want to base any new US ground based missiles and where they might be based, notably as missile defense capabilities along with the arrival of fifth generation capabilities are changing the military playing field on where and how one would wish to deploy such assets.

Less clear is who actually wants a new US land based missile in Europe, and notably, even from a US standpoint this probably makes little military sense.

But the broader challenge is the “day after problem” for President Trump, his Administration, the Congress and our NATO allies. 

I think rejecting the INF treaty makes sense, but what is the way ahead in a dual track mode of thinking.

Or put another way, what does it mean MILITARILY for the United States and its allies in NATO Europe.

More generally, how are we likely to pursue nuclear modernization in ways most relevant to deterrence in Europe, with the return of direct defense?

And I would argue that the return of direct defense challenges to Europe posed by Russia and its authoritarian allies has little to do with the nature of the Soviet challenge.

I will be publishing a book on this topic next year with my coauthor, Murielle Delaporte, on this subject.

But more importantly, where is the working relationship with our European allies on shaping a political approach to the future of nuclear modernization?

Jettisoning agreements is the easy part; the hard part is shaping an effective crisis management appraoch within which the US works with allies on both military modernization and political crisis management.

That is what is missing and if left so, Putin who lived as I did in the Europe of the 1980s, will clearly take advantage.

One thing that Putin and I share is having spent a lot of time in Europe in the 1980s and on the Euromissile crisis.

And his skill set for playing allies off of one another in the nuclear modernization game is been forged in a decisive period of Soviet-Western confrontation, namely, the 1980s.

This is something which the current cast of Western leaders really did not deal with and whose skill sets have been shaped by dealing with out of area threats, not those requiring the direct defense of Europe.

1980s Books on INF and Related Issues

Robbin Laird, The Soviet Union, the West and the Nuclear Arms Race (New York University Press, 1986).

Robbin Laird, France, the Soviet Union and the Nuclear Arms Race (Routledge Press, 1985).

Robbin Laird, editor, West European Arms Control Policy (Duke University Press, 1990).

Robbin Laird and Dale Herspring, The Soviet Union and Strategic Arms (Westview Press, 1984)

Robbin Laird and Betsy Jacobs, The Future of Deterrence: NATO Nuclear Forces After INF (Routledge, 1989).


I analyzed earlier this year what seems to be me the way ahead with regard to nuclear modernization on the US side with regard to the decade ahead, and frankly, land-based missiles do not seem even close to a core tool set.

The front end of this article, namely, the discussion with Paul Bracken follows:

The build up of the Russian missile arsenal, short, medium and long range, with clear violations of INF limitations are designed less to create a so-called anti-access and area denial capability than an arsenal designed to make the recovery of classic conventional deterrence seem beyond reach in Europe.

With the US decision to withdraw from the INF treaty, with the Russian buildup and diversification of its nuclear arsenal, with the Russian inclusion of nuclear threats in their European leveraging approach — clearly, nuclear deterrence is back on the agenda for NATO and the United States.

The anti-access and area denial bit is really about defending the Kola Peninsula, the largest concentration of military force in the world as well as the always-vulnerable “European” Russian area.

But with the gaping holes in European defense capabilities and the with the United States working to repair the focus on the land wars, there clearly is a major gap in a credible continental deterrent force.

In this sense the ability to combine hybrid warfare means, significant offensive strike missiles, and an ability to blend in low-yield nuclear weapons in the mix are designed to give the Russians flexibility in coercing European states.

With such an approach, how can European states, European NATO and the United States enhance a credible warfighting approach, which can deter the Russians?

Unfortunately, the current state of much thinking in Europe is that the challenge is to keep legacy arms control in place and to have a slow roll approach to conventional deterrence.

Such an environment is an ideal one for the Russian approach to using military power for political gain.

But what might a credible US and European offensive-defensive capability which could leverage nuclear weapons in a crisis look like?

Recently, I discussed this difficult question with my colleague Paul Bracken, the author of the Second Nuclear Age, a man whom I met many years ago when he was working for Herman Kahn and I was working for Zbig Brzezinski.

We have both spent many years working on the US-Soviet nuclear relationship, but the recasting of the nuclear deterrent challenge with Putin’s Russia in the context of significant political and military changes in both Europe and the United States requires its own analysis.

Bracken started by highlighting what he sees as two baseline realities facing analysis of nuclear deterrence in Europe today.

“There is widespread belief that nuclear weapons will never be used and should be factored out of any European defense discussion.  Nuclear incredulity is a key barrier to doing any analysis at all.

“The assumption is that there’s never going to be a Nuclear War or even a crisis. Such a thought is pushed off into a world of theoretically possible but largely unimaginable contingencies. It is so remote that politicians don’t have to think about them.”

“Secondly, analysts are chasing new technologies which they believe will reshape warfighting and are the real subjects to analyze.  New artificial intelligence or drone technologies are the focus of attention, rather than the integration of nuclear weapons into the Russian warfighting and political influence arsenal.”

“There is very little discussion of how nuclear weapons fit into the evolving warfighting approaches and here, one can miss the key threat: the Russians having a hodgepodge of capabilities ranging from the hybrid, to the traditional conventional, to a new kind of offensive-defensive approach and the blending of nuclear warheads throughout much of the conventional force.”

We then discussed the return of the nuclear challenge to Europe and what from the US and European side might be the focus of attention.

Four different postures came out of the discussion for dealing with Russia’s new challenge to NATO:

  1. The US leverages the current and future bomber force with longer range strike weapons, with a conventional emphasis but some nuclear elements deployed;
  2. A modernized NATO short range tactical nuclear weapon force;
  3. A mixed US-NATO maritime long range strike force with conventional emphasis and some low yield nuclear weapons;
  4. Rely on the US nuclear triad for deterrence in Europe, and to avoid political controversies over nuclear weapons.

The first alternative posture would be that the US could leverage the current bomber force and perhaps ramp up the new bomber and build out the longer range strike weapons on them, some nuclear but most with conventional warheads.  This force could then operate from outside of Europe but affect the battlespace within Europe.

The new bomber given the systems onboard the aircraft and its capacity to be highly integrated with the F-35 provides a wide range of contingencies in which the bomber strike force could be used to strike at key Russian choke points or axis of attack on key allies, notably the new European ones.

This would be especially important if Germany does not accelerate its ability to provide for credible conventional defense in depth.

The second would be to reorganize, restructure and build a new capability for shorter-range battlefield nuclear weapons.  This would be a limited arsenal and designed largely to be able to underscore to the Russians that lowering the nuclear threshold which is their current approach makes no sense, because we have a range of options to deny them any combat or political value from a limited nuclear strike in Europe.

The key change agent here is the nuclear equipped F-35, which can operate with its nuclear weapon inside of the airplane and with decent range to strike inside Russia to affect military capabilities of the Russian forces themselves.

Legacy aircraft are much less useful because of their vulnerability in contested airspace whereby the Russians are combining defensive and offensive means for a nuclear tipped tactical aircraft to get through.

This option becomes real again with the F-35 and with the various F-35 users in Europe who could continue in the current nuclear sharing arrangements.

The third is to rebuild the maritime strike force to have lower yield nuclear weapons, again useful in limited contingencies to deny the plausibility for the Russians pursuing a low yield nuclear strike designed to have political effect.

The fourth option is simply to rely on the strategic triad and to do flexible targeting to achieve the deterrent effect; the difficulty with this option is that the use of the strategic triad is part of a much larger piece of deterrence, mutually assured destruction, and may be the equivalent of using a hammer to open an egg.

With the patchwork quilt which NATO Europe is becoming and with the cross-cutting support the authoritarian powers are providing to one another, and with US uncertainties, it is not difficult to envisage a wide variety of crisis scenarios which would rapidly involve the question of how, when and for what purpose the Russians would threaten or use limited nuclear attacks.

Bracken underscored: “If a major country like Germany believed that they have only two choices, nuclear war or capitulation, that is not a choice that is really beneficial for the US or the rest of Europe.

“In Germany, the diplomatic and military issues are so out of sync that we could get into all sorts of crazy scenarios in a crisis which no one has really thought about.

“We need to start doing so.”

In short, for the Russians, limited nuclear use can be considered a key part of any crisis management strategy in Europe and is part of a leveraging strategy to further goals of accelerating the disaggregation of Europe.

In looking at a variety of crisis management strategies for the US and its allies, there is a clear need to avoid the fallacy of nuclear denial and to focus clearly on the role of nuclear deterrence from the NATO side with regard to the return of direct defense in Europe.