“Counterproductive and Dangerous”: Nuclear Arms Race Feared as U.S. Quits Key Treaty with Russia

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President Trump has announced plans to pull the United States out of a landmark nuclear arms pact with Russia, in a move that could spark a new arms race. President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. The INF banned all nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with short and medium ranges. The treaty helped to eliminate thousands of land-based missiles. On Saturday, Trump vowed to build new nuclear weapons. We speak with Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association. He previously led the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers. He has been advocating for the U.S. and Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump has announced plans to pull the United States out of a landmark nuclear arms pact with Russia, in a move that could spark a new arms race. President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, in 1987. The INF banned all nuclear and non-nuclear missiles with short and medium ranges. The treaty helped to eliminate thousands of land-based missiles. On Saturday, Trump vowed to build new nuclear weapons.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’ll have to develop those weapons, unless Russia comes to us and China comes to us and they all come to us and they say, “Let’s really get smart, and let’s, none of us, develop those weapons.” But if Russia’s doing it and if China’s doing it and we’re adhering to the agreement, that’s unacceptable. So, we have a tremendous amount of money to play with on our military—$700 billion, plus $716 billion. So, Russia has not adhered to the agreement, so we are going to terminate the agreement, and we are going to develop the weapons. If they get smart and if others get smart and they say, “Let’s not develop these horrible nuclear weapons,” I would be extremely happy with that. But as long as somebody’s violating that agreement, then we’re not going to be the only one to adhere to it. I think you understand that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Trump did not offer details on how Russia was violating the INF Treaty. Over the years, Russia has also accused the United States of violating the agreement by deploying a missile defense shield in Romania. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has advocated against the treaty, is now in Moscow for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin. Bolton has also opposed the extension of the 2010 New START agreement with Russia, which limited the number of deployed nuclear warheads on either side to 1,550.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump’s plan to pull out of the nuclear arms deal has been criticized around the globe. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who co-signed the deal in 1987, said, quote, “Do they really not understand in Washington what this could lead to? Quitting the INF is a mistake,” Gorbachev said. China and France spoke out against the move, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry saying, “The document has an important role in developing international relations, in nuclear disarmament, and in maintaining global strategic balance and stability,” unquote.

To talk more about the implications of the U.S. withdrawal, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association. He previously led the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, has been advocating for the U.S. and Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Were you shocked by President Trump’s announcement on Saturday? And explain exactly what it means, Daryl Kimball.

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, I was not shocked, because this appears to be a John Bolton-inspired decision by Donald Trump to pull out of this very important agreement, which has eliminated, as you said, an entire class of intermediate-range missiles that once threatened Europe; 2,692 U.S. and Soviet missiles were verifiably eliminated as a result of this treaty. Russia has been testing a ground-launched cruise missile that the U.S. says was tested in excess of the range limit established by the treaty. They have not exhausted all the diplomatic opportunities that are available to resolve this issue. We’ve been working on that.

And what Trump has done is, I think, he has very prematurely, at best, to put a kind interpretation on it, pulled the United States out of the treaty, shifting blame from Russia to President Trump for blowing up this very important agreement, that’s important for U.S. and European and Russian security. And it does absolutely nothing to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty, and it opens the door for Russia to deploy, in greater numbers, this missile of concern, which is known as the 9M729, if Russia wants to. If this treaty is gone, all the constraints on the testing, the production and the deployment of these missiles in Europe and elsewhere will be gone.

And then Trump says, you know, if Russia and China don’t abide by this treaty, we’re going to have to build missiles of this type. That kind of logic simply doesn’t make any sense, given a few basic facts. One is, China wasn’t party to the INF Treaty; the U.S. and Russia have been. The United States doesn’t need ground-launched intermediate-range missiles to deal with China. In fact, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year said, explicitly, we do not need such missiles to counter China. And the United States doesn’t have any such missile in development, and there’s no NATO country that would accept any such ground-launched cruise missile to be deployed in their territory. The last time that happened, back in 1983, there were millions of Europeans in the streets telling Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to get rid of those missiles.

So, for a number of reasons, this is counterproductive, it’s dangerous, and it does open the door to the possibility of renewed nuclear competition in this area. And it could threaten another important treaty, the New Strategic Arms Treaty, the main treaty limiting the two sides’ strategic arsenals, which is due to expire in 2021 if Trump and Putin don’t extend it.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to the 1987 summit, when President Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty, INF. Reagan talked about the significance of the deal.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: The numbers alone demonstrate the value of this agreement. On the Soviet side, over 1,500 deployed warheads will be removed, and all ground-launched intermediate range missiles, including the SS-20s, will be destroyed. … On our side, our entire complement of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, with some 400 deployed warheads, will all be destroyed. Additional backup missiles on both sides will also be destroyed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s President Reagan speaking in 1987 about the importance of this agreement. Now, you spoke, Daryl, about the fact that Russia was violating this treaty, but Russia has also accused the U.S. of violating the treaty. Is there any truth to that?

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, Russia has said they have deep concerns about whether the United States could convert defensive missile interceptors, that are part of the U.S. missile defense architecture, that are now in Romania and will be in Poland, for offensive purposes. So, they have said that that is a problem they have. And so, look, if we look at the situation, the United States has serious concerns about Russia’s compliance; the Russians have concerns about U.S. future compliance.

What really ought to happen is there should be an arrangement by which there are transparency visits by technical experts to examine these missiles of concern, and the two sides could conceivably work out an arrangement by which each side’s concerns are addressed. And if Russia does have missiles that can fly in excess of the treaty limits, they could be called upon to stop deployment. But they haven’t—the two sides haven’t gotten this far. There have not been discussions at the detailed, expert level about how to resolve this. In fact, there have only been two meetings on the INF issue between U.S. and Russian officials since Trump came into office.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, can you talk about how many—how many weapons does the United States have? How many does Russia have? Is this just a gift to the weapons manufacturers, just no holds barred, take all restraints off?

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, you’re right, Amy. We’ve got to put all this in perspective. You know, even though the Cold War is over, so to speak, the weapons that were created during the Cold War still exist. And the nuclear strategies that the United States and Russia had at that time are still very much in place. So, as we sit here this morning chatting about this, the United States deploys about 1,400 warheads on long-range bombers and missiles on land and on sea. The Russians have equivalent numbers. About 800 of those could be launched on an order from the president within about 20 minutes. So that means that both sides remain on hair-trigger. If there is a warning of an attack, the nuclear strategies call for the immediate launch of 800 or more nuclear warheads in retaliation. So, that creates the chance for miscalculation.

So, we have massive overkill. We have a situation in which the fate of literally hundreds of millions of people rests in the hands of a small number of people—specifically two gentlemen, Trump and Putin. So, we’re talking about making this situation worse by removing one of the treaties that was negotiated in the ’80s, by none other than Ronald Reagan, that helped end the Cold War. So this does reopen the possibility of a new arms race, which, of course, would certainty benefit the weapons contractors that would build any new weapons.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Daryl, could you give us a sense, before we conclude, what is at stake with the New START treaty? And does this give an indication that Trump will pull out of this? I mean, Bolton has been opposed to that, as well.

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, yeah, Bolton, before he came into office, he was—he wanted to pull out of the INF Treaty. He has said negative things about the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. So, that treaty was negotiated by Barack Obama in 2010. It’s scheduled to expire on February 5, 2021, just a few days after the next Inauguration Day. Trump and Putin could, however, agree to extend it by five years, along with the transparency and verification provisions that are very important. And right now John Bolton is leading an interagency review about whether to extend the treaty, trash the treaty or try to renegotiate some new treaty in the little amount of time left between now and 2021.

So, you know, if we look at this INF decision, I’m very worried that John Bolton is headed in the same direction with respect to the New START treaty. And if that’s the case, we would not have legally binding limits on the world’s two largest arsenals for the first time since 1972. So, it’s very important for Congress to step up, Republicans and Democrats—who support the New START treaty—to press Trump to extend this treaty, to buy us some more time, so that we can at least have these limits in place, and pursue further negotiations with Russia to further reduce the bloated and costly arsenals of these two countries.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we just have 30 seconds, but even though this is an agreement between the U.S.—or it was—and is it actually Trump saying we’re pulling out, meaning we have pulled out? Isn’t this also a message to China that President Trump is sending?

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, he may think so. I don’t think the Chinese are particularly perturbed. You know, China has most of its arsenal on ground-launched missiles with a medium or intermediate range. It just has to do with geography. They are under no pressure to join the INF Treaty. And they have a relatively small—about 300 nuclear weapons—arsenal, that they feel is sufficient to deter the United States. So, he may think he’s sending a message to China, but I don’t think it’s a very effective one.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean? Is the U.S. out, since Trump said they are?

DARYL KIMBALL: Well, that’s a great question. I mean, these discussions between John Bolton and the Russians today in Moscow, I think, will be key. It is not clear whether Trump is actually pulling out. It may be that they’re trying to threaten that the U.S. will pull out if Russia doesn’t do something in particular. That’s not clear. My Russian contacts have not yet heard anything like that. Our European allies have not heard anything like that. But I think it’s quite likely, if we remain on the current track, that the INF Treaty will be terminated by Donald Trump sometime in 2019.

AMY GOODMAN: Daryl Kimball, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Arms Control Association, previously led the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Of course, we’ll continue to report on the U.S.-Russia INF Treaty.

When we come back, a change in trans policy on the part of the Trump administration? Stay with us.

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