Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced the US is leaving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
Signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the agreement forced both sides to destroy all nuclear missiles capable of travelling between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
The White House says it’s had to resort to withdrawal because Russia has violated the agreement. Russia is accused of deploying nuclear missiles in a bid to intimidate Europe and former Soviet Union states that now ally with the West.
It’s reported that the decision to withdraw follows some very heated conversations between the two powers earlier this week, with Russia vehemently denying the American allegations. Despite Russia’s protestations of innocence, Pompeo insists: “Countries must be held accountable when they break the rules.”
It would be very easy at this point to rush to our nuclear bunkers and declare that life as we know it is about to end in atomic annihilation.
Clearly, a US withdrawal from the INF is not great for efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons, or even for trying to bring these horrendous arms under control. No one wants to go back to the dark days of Cold War politics when nuclear weapons hung like the sword of Damocles.
But the claims that Russia has defied the INF are nothing new. These allegations have been around since 2014. So the more interesting question is: why has it taken Trump so long to do anything about it?
The fact is, Trump doesn’t care about a 30-year old nuclear weapons treaty: he only cares about Trump. And he is currently concerned with the problems that Russia is causing his presidency.
After all, the Trump administration remains dogged by longstanding allegations that he and his officials have been too cosy with the Kremlin. The Mueller investigation, responsible for examining these claims, is getting closer and closer to the president.
Only this week, Mueller took yet another major scalp in the form of controversial political consultant and lobbyist Roger Stone – a man who has worked closely with Trump (and is so involved with the Republican Party that he has a tattoo of President Richard Nixon on his back). Trump has faced many scandals – including his exploits with pornographic actor Stormy Daniels – but none of these have stuck. Mueller’s slow-burn attack, however, is starting to look like a real threat and might in due course provide possible grounds for impeachment.
With the threat of Russian collusion threatening to bring down the presidency, Trump has every incentive to attack Vladimir Putin and take a hardline approach on issues of foreign policy. He needs to show that he is no friend of the Russians. Leaving the INF not only looks like he is standing up to Russia, but also gives the impression that he has no desire to even be on good diplomatic terms. In this case, attack is the best form of defence.
As such, withdrawal from the INF has nothing to with nuclear politics and everything to do with creating distance between the White House and the Kremlin.
Yes, this also means that Trump is putting the nuclear weapons regime at risk. While the US claims that a break from the agreement would increase their ability to deter the nuclear threat from China, abolishing any agreement on nuclear arms is problematic and sends the wrong message about the desperate need for their control.
But then, we are talking about a man who doesn’t really understand nuclear politics or the ramifications of what he is doing. Why worry that the world could end when we need to save the Trump brand?
Dr Michelle Bentley is Reader in International Relations and Director of the Centre of International Public Policy (CIPP) at Royal Holloway, University of London
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