What happened to INF?

Amid a series of allegations and counter-allegations of violations by the two members of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) namely US and Russia, the bilateral instrument was finally declared dead on August 2, 2019.

About INF
Concluded in 1988 and in force since 1991, the treaty had served the purpose of fostering strategic stability well by outlawing an entire class of missile systems. Missiles in the intermediate range of 500 km to 5,500 km were prohibited from being deployed on land, though not at sea.

By removing 850 American and 1,700 Soviet missiles, the treaty kept the European theatre free of the destabilising implications of this range of delivery systems. Other vectors of ranges less than 500 km were, of course, deployed but these were deemed battlefield weapons for military targets. Besides, land-based missiles with intercontinental ranges of more than 5,500 km were perceived as providers of deterrence stability.

Possible implications of end of INF
With the end of the INF treaty, the two countries have already expressed a readiness to deploy the missiles of the once prohibited ranges. Both have been engaged in relevant research and development for many years now, in any case. In fact, there has been steady deterioration of the bilateral US-Russia relationship since the failure of an attempt at a reset, the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and the resultant imposition of sanctions by the West, and the more recent allegations of Russian interference in American elections.

All of this coalesced with INF treaty violation allegations to exacerbate the demise of the treaty.

This will, of course, have ramifications for the US and Russia’s political relationship. In fact, this will further harden the divide between the two nations and their positions on the modernisation of their nuclear capabilities.

The China factor
At the time that the INF treaty was concluded, China had not yet emerged as a major player. But during the decades since then, China has steadily progressed in its military (including nuclear) capabilities to amass a large number and variety of mid-range missiles. Driven by US capabilities such as missile defence and the possible use of strategic missiles with conventional warheads that were seen as eroding its own nuclear deterrence, China contends that its march towards a better and more survivable nuclear arsenal is only to stabilise a relationship that had been rendered off-balance.

Therefore, its focus has been on increasing the accuracy, mobility, penetrability and reliability of its delivery vectors with the help of better space support capabilities. As many as 95% of all Chinese missiles are believed to be within the ranges of the INF treaty, a set of weaponry that the US and USSR/Russia had banned for themselves.

What of India?
The US has now stated the objective of crafting new arms control instruments that would better reflect current nuclear realities. Obviously, it is looking to rope China into such arrangements, which would prove to be useful for India. The problem, however, is that President Xi Jinping has indicated his lack of interest in any nuclear arms control treaty. His position remains that the two major nuclear possessors must first further reduce their nuclear armaments before expecting China’s participation. Therefore, if the US was hoping to turn the death of the INF treaty into an opportunity for giving birth to a new instrument, the task looks quite difficult now.

Should the demise of the INF treaty matter to India? There are, of course, no direct implications of this.

The treaty was a bilateral arrangement and it was incumbent on the two parties to live up to their commitments. If they have not, there is little that India can do about it. However, there are indirect ripples of this development that could well touch India’s shores.

For one, a politically vitiated relationship between US and Russia makes India’s own bilateral engagement with each country more difficult. American objections to India’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air and missile defence system is just one such instance. The nature of their relationship also makes consensus or a united approach more problematic on matters of global security, such as the challenges of nuclear terrorism, the political situation in Syria, the nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, and so on.

Secondly, the collapse of nuclear arms control removes what were largely seen as some foundational treaties, such as the Anti-Ballistic missile treaty and INF, from being examples or anchors for other nuclear dyads to follow.

Thirdly, when nations get out of such arrangements, they leave behind a sense of heightened salience of nuclear weapons. Washington and Moscow seem to have voted in favour of new nuclear deployments over acceptance of controls on nuclear arms. With greater value being ascribed to nuclear weapons, proliferation yet again occupies centrestage.

The end of the INF treaty has most likely heralded an era of growing salience of nuclear weapons.