The Demise of the INF Treaty: An Explainer

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is a product of the Cold War environment.

The Treaty required both the US and Soviet Union to eliminate their “ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, their launchers and associated support structures and support equipment within three years after the Treaty enters into force.” It signalled the end of the arms race in the Cold War era and historically became a foundational bilateral agreement on arms control between the two states. According to the Arms Control Association, “as a result of the INF Treaty the US and the Soviet Union destroyed a total of 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles by the treaty’s implementation deadline of June 1, 1991.”

In October, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the US from the INF Treaty, claiming that Russia “violated” the agreement. After initiating a 60-Day compliance process, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on February 2 that “the United States will withdraw from the INF Treaty in six months,” with Russia later suspending the treaty as well. In light of these developments, it is important to understand what impact the dissolution of the INF treaty could have on the global nuclear order. Three key impacts can be identified: 1) greater challenges to disarmament progress; 2) concerns about a renewed arms race; and 3) the emergence of global pessimism.

Withdrawal from the INF Treaty challenges and weakens efforts on disarmament. There is already frustration due to the slow pace of the elimination of nuclear weapons, and the dissolution of the INF Treaty can be seen as taking an even greater step back, weakening existing efforts to at least limit global nuclear arms. The impact this will have on multilateral disarmament efforts will likely be an important consideration for the NPT 2020 Review Conference.

The review process is facing increased pressure as a result of the lack of progress on disarmament and failure to establish a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ). The US and Russia maintain the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpiles, together possessing almost 93 % of the world’s nuclear warheads. Therefore, their actions and decisions play a crucial and strategic role towards eliminating nuclear weapons, a commitment both made under the NPT. Stepping back from an agreement that limits their nuclear arms could lead to an increased disinterest in disarmament efforts, which will likely make progress in this context only more challenging.

The collapse of the INF Treaty has also raised concerns of a renewed arms race. From a European security perspective, the treaty was particularly important. The EU foreign policy Chief Federica Mogherini stated that the EU considers the INF a “fundamental pillar” of European security and therefore that the Treaty should be “preserved and fully implemented.” On the possibility of an arms race in Europe, former NATO secretary-general Javier Solana expressed that he is “worried.” Russia has signalled the development of new missile systems, making it hard to ignore the possibility of an arms race.

Finally, the breakdown of the INF Treaty could lead to the emergence of global pessimism regarding the role of international and bilateral treaties on nuclear weapons. International and bilateral treaties are crucial for a stable international structure in order to find solutions for challenging issues in the world. Regarding nuclear affairs, which are directly related to the future of international security, international and bilateral agreements have a vital importance. The threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity makes the existence of international treaties necessary for establishing accountability and encouraging collaboration. Without such treaties being valued and maintained, people can develop a sense of pessimism that can threaten the credibility of future efforts.

The dissolution of the INF Treaty has inevitably led to concerns in many areas. Weakened efforts towards disarmament, concerns of a new arms race, and an increased pessimistic view of the global nuclear order have all been bolstered by the collapse of the INF Treaty, leaving open many questions about the future of the non-proliferation regime.


Elif Beyza Karaalioğlu completed her MA in Conflict, Security and Development in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Prior to her MA, she received her BA degree in Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Şehir University. Her research focuses on international affairs and security, Turkish foreign policy and diplomacy, and disarmament and non-proliferation of WMD.

Image credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library


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