NATO and the INF Treaty

The fate of the INF Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, was crucial to Euro-Atlantic security for decades. It eliminated a whole category of nuclear weapons that threatened Europe in the 1980s. All NATO Allies agree that the SSC-8 / 9M729 missile system developed and deployed by Russia violated the INF Treaty, while posing a significant risk to Alliance security. Despite Allies’ repeated calls on Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance, Russia continued to develop and deploy Treaty-violating systems, which led to the agreement’s demise on 2 August 2019.

The INF Treaty was signed on 8 December 1987 by the United States and the former Soviet Union, and entered into force on 1 June 1988. It required both countries to eliminate their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that could travel between 500 and 5,500 kilometres (between 300 and 3,400 miles) by an implementation deadline of 1 June 1991.

By the deadline, the two countries had together destroyed a total of 2,692 short- and intermediate-range missiles: 1,846 Soviet missiles and 846 American missiles. It marked the first elimination of an entire category of weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

But in recent years, Russia has developed, produced, tested and deployed a new intermediate-range missile known as the 9M729, or SSC-8. The 9M729 is mobile and easy to hide. It is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It reduces warning times to minutes, lowering the threshold for nuclear conflict. And it can reach European capitals.

In July 2018, NATO Allies stated that after years of denials and obfuscation by the Russian Federation, and despite Allies repeatedly raising their concerns, the Russian Federation had only recently acknowledged the existence of the missile system without providing the necessary transparency or explanation. A pattern of behaviour and information over many years led to widespread doubts about Russian compliance. NATO Allies said that, in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile, the most plausible assessment was that Russia was in violation of the Treaty.

In December 2018, NATO Foreign Ministers supported the finding of the United States that Russia was in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty and called on Russia to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance with the Treaty.

Allies remained open to dialogue and engaged Russia on its violation, including at a NATO-Russia Council meeting on 25 January 2019. Russia continued to deny its INF Treaty violation, refused to provide any credible response, and took no demonstrable steps toward returning to full and verifiable compliance.

As a result of Russia’s continued non-compliance, on 1 February 2019, the United States announced its decision to suspend its obligations under Article XV of the INF Treaty. This meant that the United States could terminate the Treaty within six months of this date if Russia had not come back into compliance.

Also on 1 February 2019, NATO Allies said that unless Russia honoured its INF Treaty obligations through the verifiable destruction of all of its 9M729 systems, thereby returning to full and verifiable compliance, Russia would bear sole responsibility for the end of the Treaty. NATO Allies also made clear that NATO would continue to closely review the security implications of Russian intermediate-range missiles and would continue to take steps necessary to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the Alliance’s overall deterrence and defence posture.

On 15 February 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recalled at the Munich Security Conference that “it was on this very stage, at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, this was the place that President Putin first publically expressed his desire for Russia to leave the INF Treaty. A treaty that is only respected by one side will not keep us safe”.

The Alliance did everything in its remit to encourage Russia to return to compliance before 2 August 2019 so as to preserve the INF Treaty.

On 26 June 2019, NATO Defence Ministers urged Russia once again to return to full and verifiable compliance. They also considered potential NATO measures – such as exercises, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, air and missile defences, and conventional capabilities – and agreed that NATO would continue to ensure a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. At the same time, Defence Ministers confirmed that NATO had no intention to deploy new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe, and did not want a new arms race.

On 2 August 2019, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Treaty took effect. NATO Allies issued a statement fully supporting the US decision, and attributing “sole responsibility” for the Treaty’s demise to Russia. The statement made clear that NATO would respond in a “measured and responsible way” to the risks posed by Russia’s SSC-8 system, with a “balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures,” ensuring credible and effective deterrence and defence. Allies also made clear their firm commitment to the preservation of effective international arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.