(Russian Ministry of Defense)

Experts and analysts are struggling to grasp the implications of the growing likelihood that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. As U.S. national-security adviser John Bolton holds talks on the matter with counterparts in Moscow, RFE/RL takes a look at some of the more interesting reactions.


Political ploy?

While most Russian analysts have been slow to comment, state media in Russia have been putting forward the notion that U.S. President Donald Trump's statements against the INF Treaty are not to be taken at face value.

The state RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unidentified "diplomatic source" in Brussels as saying Trump's statement has "an election context."

"Just days before the elections to Congress, he wants to show his electorate that he can make decisions that will upset the president of Russia," the source was quoted as saying.

The pro-Kremlin tabloid website Argumenty Nedeli quoted an unidentified "high-ranking Russian diplomatic-military source" as saying that Trump's statement was a ploy to get the upper hand in talks with Russia on nuclear issues.

"The business president is simply raising the stakes before negotiations like he always does," the source said. "Now a banal exchange of concessions both by us and by the Americans will begin."

Thomas Graham, former specialist on Russia for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, told the daily Kommersant that the withdrawal indications could just mean that Bolton, who has long opposed any arms-control treaties with Russia, has caught the president's ear.

"Only time will tell if this decision is final," he said. "In the administration there are high-ranking figures who support the treaty and who would like to continue working with Russia to regulate contentious issues."

National Security Advisor John Bolton

(U.S. Embassy in Ukraine)

Russian violation?


Since 2014, the United States has argued that Russia has been in violation of the INF Treaty because it is developing an intermediate-range, ground-launched cruise missile that is provisionally known as the 9M729. The Trump administration said in 2017 that Moscow had begun deploying the new weapon.

Russia has denied that it was violating the treaty and has countercharged that some elements of a U.S. antimissile system in Europe violate it.

Russia fires an Iskander-K ballistic missile during Zapad 2017 drills. The 9M729 is said to be a variant of this missile.

(Russian Ministry of Defense)

Writing for the Brookings Institution, former high-ranking U.S. diplomat Steven Pifer has argued that unilaterally withdrawing from the agreement in this way would be a mistake that would leave Washington to blame for killing a major element of global arms control.

Withdrawing from the treaty would also enable Moscow to deploy the 9M729 without any restraints, Pifer added. It could also further the erosion of U.S. relations with its allies in Europe, he said, noting that no European countries have expressed concerns over the 9M729.

Pifer concludes that a smarter approach would be to get on one page with Europe and urge NATO allies to raise the possible violation directly with Moscow. At the same time, Washington could take "treaty compliant" steps such as deploying additional bombers in Europe that would send a serious signal to Russia.

"The INF Treaty likely has entered its final days," Pifer wrote. "That's unfortunate. The Trump administration should make one last push, with the help of allies, to get Moscow back into compliance. And, if that fails, it should have ready a presentation that will win the inevitable fight over who killed the treaty."

Demonstrating Russia's alleged violations would probably require the United States to declassify some sensitive intelligence information, Pifer noted.

Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. National Security Council senior director for policy development under Reagan, writing in The American Interest, largely agreed with Pifer, saying that keeping the treaty is important because it "keeps Russian capabilities under legal limits."

"Yes, Moscow will probably keep nibbling at the edges of the INF deal, but the only way it can launch a big buildup is by withdrawing from the treaty itself — something it clearly hesitates to do," he wrote.

China gambit

A missile test in China in August, 2018.

(Ministry of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China)

Sestanovich notes that U.S. military planners are concerned about the INF Treaty because it restricts Russia and the United States but leaves China free to develop the weapons it bans.

"Military competition between China and the United States will obviously be the Pentagon's top priority in coming years," he wrote. "But the idea that this need decisively devalues the INF Treaty seems — at the very least — premature."

He says that for the foreseeable future, the United States and its allies deter China with a combination of air- and sea-launched weapons.

"It's not impossible to imagine that over time we and our allies will come to think that medium-range, ground-based missiles — the kind the INF Treaty keeps us from having — would add meaningfully to deterrence of China," he wrote. "But this is not a near-term prospect. In fact, virtually every U.S. ally in the region would reject the idea."

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.