Prospects over Nuclear Arms Control between the United States and Russia by Focusing on the INF Treaty


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, had been regarded by many as a truly historic deal. Primarily, it became a crucial arms control treaty to ensure European security against the Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles threat, which were able to hit almost every target in Western Europe. The treaty achieved to eliminate ground-launched short-medium range conventional and nuclear missiles of both the United States and USSR. Later, as a successor of the USSR, Russia has remained loyal to the deal. However, many times, the treaty has questioned openly by Russian President Vladimir Putin and high-level political figures while pointing the particular American ballistic missiles. On the other side, in 2014, the U.S. State Department announced the deal’s Russian violation; therefore, there were a handful of diplomatic breakthroughs. However, the critical and controversial decision of the United States came in 2019 when President Trump announced withdrawal from the INF Treaty. This paper aims to look at the drivers behind the U.S. decision and try to identify future scenarios on arms control and nuclear disarmament between Russia and the U.S. under the Biden administration.

Keywords: arms control, security, strategic studies, ballistic missiles, nuclear disarmament


During the bipolar world order, the arms race between the United States and the United Soviet Socialist Republics accelerated in many aspects. As two of the world’s superpowers had nuclear weapons, a possibility of armed conflict between them could result in catastrophic consequences. Therefore, there had been strenuous efforts over arms control and nuclear disarmament to ensure safety worldwide. In that sense, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been accepted as a landmark international treaty to eliminate risks that could cause by the missile power of both sides, and it was crucial for the European continent as the Russian  SS-20 missiles could reach many parts of Western Europe. There had been series of negotiations held between both sides’ leaders to reach an agreement over the decrease of missile proliferation. In the end, both superpowers agreed to dismantle the 500-5500 km range missiles, and in total, they had destroyed more than 2.000 nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles. (Bugos, 2019) For more than two decades, this treaty had been served successfully to fulfill its purpose. However, during the last ten years, there had been several breakthroughs over several disagreements and suspicions. The breaking point came in 2019, and after the six-month suspension period, the United States announced its withdrawal; so, the New START deal remained as final treaty to control the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Russia.

In this paper, there will be a focus on the reasons behind INF Treaty’s failure and will try to identify prospective steps and scenarios. The remaining part of this paper is structured as follows; in the first section, the reason behind the need to eliminate the intermediate-range of nuclear forces will be explained. Secondly, the background of the United States’ withdrawal from the INF Treaty will be discussed. Then, while looking at the speeches and interviews of high-level politicians, predictions on the future possibilities over Russian-US cooperation on arms control will be given. In the end, the presented argument in this paper is that the INF Treaty has been regarded as represented the Cold War world order and necessities; however, there has been a gradual shift in the world system since then, for instance, the involvement of new rising powers into the world politics challenged the existing order and blurred the balance in power relations. Additionally, the lack of confidence-building measures between the two countries and the leaders’ perceptions over power politics has resulted in a decline in arms control. Consequently, considering the new threat perceptions and discourse adopted by the high-level politicians, future achievements over restrictions and limitations over the nuclear disarmament between Russia and the U.S. seem challenging for a short period of time.

The Reasons behind the Elimination of the Short and Medium Range Missiles

To understand the significance of the INF Treaty and its necessity, the reasons behind the need for elimination of medium and short-range missiles should have investigated. During the Cold-War period arms race between USSR and U.S. had been on top-level; meanwhile, the western alliances, NATO members were predominantly under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and covered by extended deterrence; thereby, the protection of western European states was primarily dependent on the United States capabilities. As mentioned in the previous section, the concerns over European security increased when the USSR replaced its old SS-4 and SS-5 ballistic single-warhead missiles with SS-20 IRBM missiles, also called RSD-10 Pioneer, in 1976. (Kühn & Peczeli, 2017) Those had the potential to hit any target in Western Europe; thereby, regarded by a severe threat as a destabilizing factor in current power dynamics and strategic balances. Following this, in 1979, NATO deployed the Double-Track decision, meaning deploying American ground-launched systems, 108 Pershing II launchers, and 466 GLCMs in Western Europe. Until the signing of the INF Treaty, this period is often called the Euromissiles crisis as other states such as the United Kingdom and France had insisted on showing to the stage with their nuclear capabilities against the Soviet missiles in eastern Europe. For instance, in 1981, French President François Mitterrand stated that France had a responsibility to speak up in decisions on the future of Europe, as a slide towards a non-nuclear Europe was not desirable but, on the contrary direction, a balance of powers had to be re-established. (Lelllouche, 1983) He further added that France rejected the bipolar world order and demanded it becomes an independent nuclear deterrence force for European security.

Consequently, this so-called Euromissile crisis has led to massive anti-nuclear public demonstrations and reactions in many European countries along with the United States. In 1983, NATO deployed the Pershing II missiles in the Federal Republic of Germany territory, and this double-track decision was supported by some European leaders such as Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher. On the other hand, according to Kühn & Peczeli (2017), the second dimension of this double-track decision was the beginning of the negotiations with the Soviets to set limits and regulations over deployments of such weapons. At the end of these negotiations, both sides had agreed to the elimination of intermediate-range missile launchers, ballistic and cruise missiles. This was an essential step to ensure mutual safety and European security.

The Background of the U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty

Following years after the deal, both sides had eliminated more than 2,000 missiles in total and, on-site inspections had been conducted until 2001 as a controlling mechanism. Later, the inspections had transformed into the national verification means. However, a couple of years later, after Vladimir Putin’s Presidency, the Russian dissatisfaction over the INF Treaty has been observed in the high-level official’s discourse. According to Kühn & Peczeli (2017), there had been concerns over Chinese ballistic missiles in Russia for several years. For instance, in 2007, the former Russian Defence Minister acknowledged that “It was a mistake to destroy a whole class of medium-range ballistic missiles because only Russia and the U.S. are not allowed to have such weapons, but they could extremely beneficial for us.” (Blank, 2008) Additionally, in 2007, President Putin announced that INF Treaty had no more served Russian interests. (INF nuclear treaty, 2019)

Furthermore, in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama initiated the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) as a missile defense system against threats possessed by Iranian short and medium-range missiles towards the European continent. However, from a Russian perspective, this had undermined Russian strategic deterrence; therefore, she strongly opposed that plan since the beginning. Significantly, the plans over phase 4 of the system to build in Poland had created tensions between Russia and the U.S.

On the other hand, it is essential to look at the missile proliferation of other countries other than Russia and the U.S to understand their threat perceptions. Several states have land-based intermediate ballistic missiles, such as China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, even that it has been known that six of them have nuclear warhead ballistic missiles, and some of them could reach Russian territories in a couple of minutes. However, this does not mean they are posing a serious threat to Russia; rather than that, this demonstrates the strategic environment because, in general, Chinese missiles are carrying strategic importance over Indians, the tensions in the South China Sea, and the Pacific region. On the other side, Israelis’s against Saudi’s and Iranians, while Indians against Pakistani’s. According to Kühn & Peclevi (2017), without a need for an intermediate-range of nuclear forces, exited Russian capabilities are enough to deter any other states, including the U.S. In that sense, possessing those weapons would not become an added value for Russian deterrence against the states given above but more threatening for the European continent and could be carrying strategic meaning because of the future uncertainties possessed by China’s rising power.

In the 2014 Compliance Report, the United States determined Russian violation of the INF Treaty regulations. However, President Obama acknowledged that he is not in favor of withdrawal from the treaty as it could start an arms race again and European counterparts would favor remaining the treaty. (Russia’ violated, 2014) Later those allegations continued in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 in the U.S. State Department Assessments. (Arms Control Association, 2019) While Russia denied any of those accusations, she has claimed that the U.S. was in non-compliance. In 2018, Pompeo declared officially that because of the deal’s violation by Russia, the U.S. would suspend its treaty obligations until Russia immediately (60 days) return to compliance. Within the same year, the U.S. administration announced a suspension of the INF Treaty obligations and intentions of withdrawal from the treaty in six months. Following this, President Putin decided to suspend Russian obligations as well. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the INF treaty formally. On the same day of the withdrawal decision, the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said: “Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise because states must be held accountable if they break the rules.”(Sanger& Broad, 2019)According to Marcus (2018), leaving the treaty means a crucial setback for arms control as it could bring back strategic competition. However, some other factors may have affected the U.S. decisions, such as the bilateral nature of the INF Treaty because of the Chinese intermediate-range nuclear missile arsenal and rising strategy rivalry with Beijing; as the INF treaty put limitations and restrictions over the U.S. missile power.

Future Prospects

A day after formally announcing withdrawal from the Treaty, Mark Esper, the U.S. Secretary of Defence, mentioned that the United States should deploy ground-launched conventional inter-mediate range missiles in Asia soon as possible before it is too late. (The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, 2019) While Russia and China have intensely criticized the withdrawal decision, President Putin blamed the United States for undercutting many years of efforts rather than a meaningful discussion; as a consequence, Moscow will follow the missile developments as a mirror to the U.S. Moreover, Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said moving away from the INF Treaty had drawn a negative image of the U.S. as ignoring its international obligations and commitments that demonstrate real American intention to seek military and strategic edge rather than following a legally binding treaty; so, it also clearly shows the U.S. preference over unilateralism. (Press Conference, 2019) NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that the world should be prepared itself for more Russian missiles, and NATO should be ready to respond in a responsible sense against the risks possesses by the Russian 9M729 Missile, but he highlighted that NATO does not want a new arms race. (Marcus, 2019) In general, NATO supported the withdrawal decision by pointing out suspicious Russian commitment to the treaty, but German Foreign Minister Maas highlighted the fact “a piece of Europe’s security has been lost.” (INF nuclear treaty, 2019)

In terms of uncertainties and dilemmas caused after the INF Treaty’s withdrawal, it is noteworthy to look at the Ukrainian response. After the meeting between Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and the country’s national security and defense council, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister said the followings;

There is a severe threat to the whole European continent caused by the withdrawal from the treaty and the potential military pressure of the Russian Federation on European allies of NATO to establish total control by Moscow over the broader region from Baltic to the Mediterranean Sea. Ukraine retains the right to develop military weapons necessary for our country’s defense capabilities, including the relevant missile weapons. “(Maza, 2019)

That statement clearly shows that new security dilemmas have arisen because of the collapsing control over arms control between Russia and the U.S. accelerated by the Russian Iskander-M operational-tactical missiles deployment in Crimea after the Russian annexation. As the tensions between Ukraine and Russia have highly increased since 2013, those new dimensions exaggerated Ukrainian security concerns as well and are regarded as a significant threat to national safety.  

On the other hand, since China has been rapidly modernizing its military capabilities, it could be triggered the withdrawal decision as any treaty does not legally bind it over missile development.  President Trump highlighted that if there would not be a new agreement with China and Russia, then the U.S. will advance its ballistic missile capabilities while saying; “We really have no choice…Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can’t — in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.”  (Pandey, 2019) In 2015, Beijing deployed the Dong-Feng 26 intermediate-range ballistic missile system. The Missile has a range of 3,000-4,000 km and can reach almost every U.S. military base in the eastern Pacific Ocean. In 2019, Stoltenberg argued that if the U.S. and Russia both willing to negotiate, then there might be a new deal, including other countries such as India and China, as rising nuclear powers.

Considering the legally binding treaties between Russia and the U.S. over nuclear arms control, the reached agreements during the Cold-War period had collapsed one by one. For instance, in 2002, the Bush Administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty had accelerated US-Russian security competition. After the withdrawal from the INF Treaty, there is one final legally binding agreement that remained between the United States and Russia on arms control and nuclear disarmament that is New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). It was signed in 2011 for ten years duration and then extended for additional five years under the Biden Administration when his first days in office. This agreement had extended under extraordinary conditions as the deadline was remained a very short deadline, just days before it was set to expire. Compared to the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to negotiate a revision of the New START Treaty, Biden Administration had demonstrated the U.S. desire to address the treaty’s shortcomings and maybe include other nuclear powers. However, by looking at the current U.S. position towards the Iranian nuclear program after its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action 2018 and reintroducing economic sanctions over Iran, Biden Administration does not adopt a constructive approach instead prefers a more restrictive one. However, since he promised in the election campaign, President Biden has started to recover relations with several countries that were weakened during the Trump Administration while turning back to some international treaties again, such as the Paris Agreement. He also stated American commitment to NATO and reassured its place in Western alliances several times. (Gearan & Parker, 2021) These developments have indicated a shift from Trump’s isolationist policy towards more restoring American leadership following multilateralism rather than unilateralism. On the other hand, during the Obama Administration’s global-zero efforts, President Biden had highlighted that;

The spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing the country and, I would argue, facing humanity, and that is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually eliminate them.  Nevertheless, until that day comes, we have to do everything in our power to maintain our arsenal.” (Biden Argues, 2010)

Since the beginning, it has been far known that Joe Biden had been called the “champion of nuclear arms control” in the U.S. Senate. In 2017, he further confirmed this stance by saying it is hard to think of a plausible scenario to first use nuclear weapons considering the given U.S. non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of current threats. Moreover, in 2020, he openly criticized nuclear explosive weapons testing that the Trump administration has resumed. Therefore, by considering President Biden’s long history as an opponent of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and nuclear disarmament, it would not be naïve to expect future limitations and steps on arms control between Russia and the U.S. to eliminate current uncertainty and strategic instability.  It can be argued that the best scenario for the future is through the creation of confidence-building measures and rational calculations; the leaders will be accepting to negotiate by including other nuclear power states in line with their cost-benefit calculations for establishing limitations rather than free-riding of all.

However, on the contrary direction, the recent tensions between Russia and the U.S. are not creating a positive agenda in that sense. For instance, during the ABC News interview in March 2021, Biden answered as ‘I do’ when he was asked if he believes Putin was a killer. Then, Russia recalled its Washington ambassador for negotiations over the issue; it was the first recall of the ambassador by Russia since 1998. Later, President Putin offered public talks to the U.S. Presidents in a television interview with these statements; “I want to propose to President Biden to discuss, publicly and online, without any delays and directly in an open, direct discussion. It seems to me that would be interesting for the people of Russia and the people of the United States.” (Reevell, 2021)

Additionally, spokesman of the Kremlin, Dmitry Peskov, acknowledged to the reporters that President Biden’s comments had confirmed for them that the U.S. has no will to improve relations with Russia. Peskov added that: “I will say only that these statements by the U.S. president seem highly negative. He does not want to normalize relations with Russia; thereby, we will be acting based exactly on this premise.” (Reevell, 2021) Later, the Russian foreign minister said: “We state with regret that the American side has not accepted President Putin’s propose on holding a public discussion with U.S President Biden…to talk about problems in bilateral relations and also the theme around strategic (nuclear) stability.” (Russia Says, 2021) Considering the recent tensions, in the worst case, this new arms race between Russia and the U.S., without arms control arrangements, will bring the world one step behind in a future confrontation with constantly increasing deadly weapons.


Today, Russia and the United States are two legitimate nuclear powers with the largest stockpiles, and both sides have achieved mutually assured destruction since the bipolar world order, meaning that both have the second-strike capability after the first attack. Consequently, arms control arrangements and bilateral relations between two nations have been carrying the importance of global security. However, after the INF Treaty collapse, a significant bilateral agreement over nuclear disarmament and arms control, the only remaining treaty to regulate Russian-US capabilities is the New START treaty.  Furthermore, additional actors in the nuclear area have been adding complexity to the issue, and it would not be wrong to say that today’s world is under a nuclear arms race with limited control over them. As a life-long non-proliferation supporter, Joe Biden might change this situation as he promised during the electoral campaign to bring a new era for arms control. Compared to his former counterpart, Donal Trump, President Biden might indicate a significant contribution of the arms control arrangements to the security instead of following an escalation strategy. Negotiations and confidence-building measures to reach strategic stability might be the only solution to understanding each side’s mutual concerns and doctrines. However, the Biden Administration has a busy agenda; deadly pandemic, vaccination, Iranian nuclear program, economic recovery, political divisions in domestic politics, white supremacists, and recovering foreign relations.

On the other hand, the relations with Russia, the only country with enough capability to destroy America, on arms control arrangements are as significant as others. Instead, especially after the annexation of Crimea and President Putin’s more threatening tone over the use of nuclear weapons, it has required urgent attention. Still, the recent discourse that was observed in President Biden’s statements gives the implications that in the following period, the uncertainties will remain without major achievements over arms control between Russia and the U.S.

İrem Dumlu



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