Fact Check: Are We Threatened By Russia's INF Withdrawal?

Fact Check: Are We Threatened By Russia's INF Withdrawal?
Fact Check: Are We Threatened By Russia's INF Withdrawal?

There’s been some panicked speculation about what Russia’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty means. Is President Putin planning to build up arsenals of new weaponry and make us vulnerable to a surprise attack? Is World War Three on the way? Or is this just a paper exercise that won’t change anything in the real world?

Highlights

  • The INF Treaty was signed by the US and the USSR on December 8, 1987 (Russia, as the successor state to the USSR, carried on the Soviet obligations to the treaty).
  • Under the treaty, both countries agreed to scrap all their land-based nuclear missiles with a maximum range between 310 and 3,420 miles. The main effect was to get rid of the USA’s Pershing II ballistic missiles and Tomahawk TLAM-N (Land Attack Mode – Nuclear) missiles, and the Soviets’ SS-20 ballistic missiles. Some older Soviet systems were also scrapped under the treaty. Sea- and air-launched missiles weren’t affected.
  • The American Pershing II and TLAM-N missiles had been based in European NATO countries – mainly the UK and West Germany – and were assigned to targets in Eastern Europe and the western Soviet Union.
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  • The SS-20s were positioned in Eastern Europe and targeted on Western Europe. Their mission would have been to paralyze NATO with a sudden surprise attack on headquarters, airfields and troop concentrations, crippling the alliance for several days and allowing the Soviets to over-run Western Europe with conventional forces.
  • Because the SS-20s didn’t have the range to hit targets in the US, the Soviets believed that their use wouldn’t be seen as strategic – which would have provoked a full-scale nuclear strike on the USSR.
  • The deployment of TLAM-N, which could carry a 150 kiloton warhead to Moscow from a firing point in the UK, was meant to send a signal that the US didn’t need to cross the strategic threshold to hit back hard.
  • Although INF was signed by the two superpowers it wasn’t designed to protect them from each other – strategic weapons weren’t affected by it. Instead, it was meant to prevent a “limited” nuclear war being fought in Europe.
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  • With INF seen as increasingly irrelevant since the end of the Cold War, both sides have regularly accused the other of breaking it. The US finally suspended the treaty last Friday, claiming that the Russian RK-55 cruise missile is in violation of the INF range limits.
  • Russia retaliated by saying the RK-55’s range is long enough to put it outside the terms of the INF, and suspended its own treaty membership on Saturday.
  • Really, nothing much has changed. The RK-55 isn’t a new superweapon; it’s been around since the late 1980s without causing any problems. Even if the current suspension becomes permanent we lose is a treaty designed to prevent a war we were worried about in 1987, fought with weapons that don’t exist anymore.