What was once hailed as the cornerstone of European security in the late 20th century is now defunct, as both the United States and Russia have decided to walk away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a deal that held its ground for 32 years since it was signed by late US president Ronald Reagan and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.
It represented one of the biggest steps in non-proliferation efforts to decrease the enormous stockpiles of nuclear warheads possessed by the then two superpowers.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin officially suspended the treaty from Russia’s side in July 2019 after US President Donald Trump announced that the US would drop the treaty as a result of alleged Russian violations of it.
The INF Treaty reduced the tensions incurred during the Cold War after World War II between the Western allies led by the United States and the Communist ones led by the former Soviet Union.
Until its recent and unfortunate end, the treaty banned land-based missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 km and also contributed to non-proliferation efforts by the elimination of 2,692 US and Soviet nuclear and conventional missiles.
It was supposed to be part of a growing trend towards the elimination of most nuclear warheads from the planet, but these efforts have hit a wall now with this historic deal now in tatters.
The US accused the Russians of developing and deploying a missile system in violation of the deal.
Moscow denied the allegation and asserted that US missile-defence systems in Eastern Europe, particularly the one that is soon to be installed in Poland, were violations of the treaty.
As with any broken international treaty, blame has been exchanged by both sides on who was responsible. But in this case both the US and Russia share part of the blame that has led to this unfortunate outcome.
The Russians have long blamed the Americans for expanding the size of NATO and its allies in Europe following the fall of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
Russia has looked with suspicion at US moves to encircle it as the successor state of the former Soviet Union with its military bases and military presence.
Since the fall of the USSR, NATO has added 13 members, including former Warsaw Pact members such as Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary. It has even included former USSR countries such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
These additions have caused the Russians to feel wary about the real intentions of the US and its allies towards them, and accordingly they have accused the West of breaking protocols and showing ill intentions towards the Russian side.
NATO has not taken heed of the Russian worries, and it has continued its expansion, resulting in massive countermeasures by the Russians, especially since Putin took the helm of the Russian state in 2000.
Over the past decade, Russia has developed a number of ground-breaking long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) to add to its already devastating arsenal of nuclear armaments.
Russian ICBMs such as the RS-28 Sarmat, which reaches speeds of Mach 20, and the Topol M, which reaches speeds of Mach 22, are unmatched in terms of speed, payload and defence-evasion techniques, and represent the toughest strategic challenge facing NATO.
The latter has been developing a Prompt Global Strike (PGS) system that will enable the US to perform conventional airstrikes anywhere in the globe within an hour.
However, the problem for the US does not only stem from these long-range ICBMs, as there are also medium-range ones deployed near the borders with NATO members. For the US, this represents a breach of the treaty signed in 1987 and has even warranted dropping it entirely.
According to the US, Russia was gaining an unfair advantage as the US had ceased the development of medium-range missiles, while the Russians had continued with such programmes.
The US has announced that it will soon be testing a new non-nuclear mobile-launched cruise missile to counter what it perceives as the Russian threat from developing these weapons.
Even more unfortunate is the news that the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 2) signed in 2011 that was scheduled to be renewed in 2021 is now likely to be off the table despite calls by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for both countries to extend it.
The tensions growing from these events mean that the bilateral nuclear arms control mechanisms between the US and Russia are mostly no longer in place, and the world could witness a new nuclear arms race that will only contribute to global tensions.
Moreover, Europe is also now at risk of being a battlefield in that growing race as it was during the Cold War.
The huge arsenal of nuclear warheads stored in European countries by NATO, or those pointed towards those same countries by the Russians, are signs of things to come. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has stated that the actions taken by the US towards Russia prohibit his country from taking any further pledges by NATO seriously.
This signifies the gravity of the demise of the INF Treaty, which has obliterated 32 years of cooperation towards making the world a safer place and less full of nuclear armaments.
An irony remains in that Trump has at the same time been exerting vehement efforts towards the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. These have come along with peace talks with North Korea, which reportedly possesses only 20 or 30 nuclear warheads. Walking away from the INF Treaty with Russia means overlooking some 6,500 warheads.
What North Korea possesses is a drop in the ocean compared to what the Russians, and of course the Americans, have, yet no similar efforts have been exerted to maintain or modify the INF Treaty.
While the situation with North Korea and South Korea has been uncertain since the end of the Korean War in 1953, there was no logical reason not to work harder towards maintaining the INF Treaty or sign a new one to replace the treaty of 1987 with Russia.
To put things into perspective, a nuclear war will not erupt next week over the end of this landmark treaty, but an obstacle has been removed to one igniting in the future.
There is always room for negotiations, and the two superpowers have an obligation towards their countries and the rest of the world to negotiate a new treaty because what will transpire as a result of the demise of this one may be cataclysmic.
No one can predict who will lead the US or Russia in the future and how far they will show restraint in their actions. Accordingly, a new set of nuclear non-proliferation treaties to be signed by both superpowers is imperative for global security.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Nuclear arms treaty in tatters