Will this new arms race end before it begins? Faced with the prospect of the US catching up to both Russia and China in land-based intermediate missile systems, Vladimir Putin called for new arms-limitation talks. After repeatedly abrogating the now-defunct INF treaty, the Russian strongman now wants to avoid “chaos”:
“If Russia obtains reliable information that the United States has finished developing these systems and started to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles,” Putin said in a statement.
In the meantime, he said Russia’s arsenal of air and sea-launched missiles combined with its work on developing hypersonic missiles meant it was well placed to offset any threat emanating from the United States.
It was now essential, he added, for Moscow and Washington to resume arms control talks to prevent what he described as an “unfettered” arms race breaking out.
“In order to avoid chaos with no rules, restrictions or laws, we need to once more weigh up all the dangerous consequences and launch a serious and meaningful dialogue free from any ambiguity,” Putin said.
Forget the threat to escalate an arms race. For one thing, Russia triggered the arms race by already producing such systems. While our NATO partners might not have been enthusiastic about trashing the INF treaty, they all recognized that Russia has been ignoring it for years and that the US didn’t have much choice. All the US did in withdrawing from the INF was to adopt the same restrictions in theory that Putin has put into practice, which is to say none at all.
For another, the Russian economy can’t afford another arms race, especially with oil and gas prices as low as they are. The US pre-empted that option by becoming the world’s biggest oil exporter, and Russia’s now struggling to keep chaos from breaking out at home. Unrest over economic and political woes keeps rising, and Putin’s regime has to take tougher and tougher steps to keep its subjects in line.
And when Putin read this cheerleading for mass production of previously banned systems in the New York Times, that had to get his attention:
For six years, American diplomats patiently tried to persuade the Russians to honor the agreement, but Russia ignored the United States and NATO allies while building and deploying more than 100 of the banned missiles. Even more worrisome, China, which was never part of the bilateral treaty and repeatedly declined to join it, started in the 1990s to assemble a huge missile force explicitly designed to counter American strengths. China now has thousands of missiles armed with conventional and nuclear warheads. These precise and deadly missiles are capable of attacking ships at sea and bases ashore, not only throughout the territory of America’s allies in Asia, but also far out at sea and on American territory in Alaska, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
Lacking conventionally armed, ground-launched missiles with which to attack enemy forces, or sufficient defenses against China or Russia’s conventionally armed, ground-launched missiles, American forces routinely lose war game simulations involving China or Russia, and could lose a real war.
So the United States needs to acquire its own conventionally armed, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles. These missiles could provide considerable operational benefits for United States forces and pose challenges to adversaries. If operated from American territory and the territory of allies, these weapons could quickly attack enemy targets once they are detected. Moreover, by using these missiles to strike heavily defended targets and the systems that protect them, the risks to manned aircraft and ships could be reduced.
This new capability would make American forces more effective and could deter Chinese, Russian or other adversary leaders from aggressive actions. Lastly, by arming these missiles with only conventional warheads, the United States could reduce the possibility that enemy forces would confuse these weapons with nuclear ones and mitigate the concerns that led to the original I.N.F. Treaty. It could also provide the United States with an opportunity to negotiate a treaty with China, Russia and other countries that would ban nuclear-armed, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles.
The game has already changed, and changed quickly. Before Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo scotched the INF treaty on Friday, the official Putin line was that there wasn’t anything to discuss. Now, suddenly, Putin’s worried about “chaos” and “no restrictions.” That’s at least one step toward realigning the incentives.
Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out how this is being received by the other major signal-target of that withdrawal from the INF. The South China Morning Post, largely seen as the voice of official Beijing, saw Putin’s statement as a plea for new talks:
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday urged the United States to begin new arms talks after the collapse of a cold war nuclear pact between the two world powers. …
Russia “will not deploy them in relevant regions until American-made missiles are deployed there,” Putin said.
Unless there are new talks about strategic security, “this scenario means restarting an uncontrolled arms race,” he added.
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said at the weekend that he would like to deploy the new intermediate-range missiles in Asia, but denied that this would spark an arms race as the weapons are not nuclear.
China has been developing similar systems all along as it was not a party to the INF treaty. The Trump administration wants China bound in any new compact, however, and it’s clear that the dispute has Beijing’s attention. A threat to deploy such systems in Asia will have Xi Jinping looking for containment of the US threat, and might lead him to put pressure on Putin to eliminate the 9M729 system that triggered the US withdrawal. That’s precisely the leverage the US sought, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to have Xi deploy it — even Putin’s.