What Is The INF Treaty?

Portrait of U.S. president Ronald Reagan (R) posing with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in the White House library, Washington, D.C., December 8, 1987.
White House Photos / Getty Images

The rocky relationship between the United States and Russia is set to become even tenser with the announcement on the morning of February 1 by American State Secretary Mike Pompeo that the U.S. will be ending its participation in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), more commonly known as the INF Treaty.

During a briefing, told journalists gathered, “The US… suspends its obligations under the INF Treaty effective February 2.” However, Pompeo did leave the door open for a return to complying with the treaty, giving Russia 180 days to accept the American’s demands. If Russia does not respond, the United States will withdraw completely from the treaty six months from now, according to a report by Russia Today.

For many that have been born in the years following the Cold War, the importance of the INF Treaty may not be fully understood. For those who have lived through the time period with the threat of nuclear war far from an impossible outcome, the INF Treaty is a symbol of a move away from the brink by the world’s two largest powers and cemented a level of security in both countries, as well as the rest of Europe, in the more than 30 years that followed.

When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December of 1987, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in an arms race that was spiraling out of control. In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union introduced a new intermediate-range missile, the SS-20, which had a range of 5,000 kilometers, meaning it had the capability to strike targets in Western Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia, and Alaska, depending on where they were positioned, according to U.S Department of State. The United States responded by placing 464 single-warhead U.S. ground-launched cruise (GLCM) missiles and 108 Pershing II ballistic missiles throughout Western Europe.

With both powers at a stalemate, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into almost a decade of talks with the goal of limiting the proliferation of such weapons. Talks were unproductive and full of dead ends, but by 1987 Reagan and Gorbachev had come to an agreement that would eliminate “all nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500–1,000 kilometers (310–620 mi) (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 km (620–3,420 mi) (intermediate-range),” according to the U.S. Department of State, an impossible to imagine dream when the talks began.

While the pact did make an exception for similar weapons to be fired from sea or air, the State Department reported that the treaty lead to the destruction of 2,692 missiles by 1991. The treaty had no expiration date and carried over through the Soviet Union’s collapse and the rise of Russia. With this latest announcement, the treaty is open for violation and a return to proliferation, with Europe and Asia once again facing the prospect of being a battleground for a nuclear war.