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U.S. withdrawal of nuclear treaty sparks arms race concerns

The Trump Administration on Friday formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a Cold War-era arms pact with Russia that banned land-based missiles with ranges up to 3,410 miles. For years, the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the INF treaty, a claim Russia has denied. Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This week a Cold War-era pact, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces or INF treaty between the U.S. and Russia expired. Both countries accuse each other of violating the agreement for years. It was supposed to ban land based missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,410 miles. Joining me now from Washington D.C. for more on what this may mean is Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group dedicated to preventing the use of nuclear weapons. He was formerly senior director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

    Jon in some ways this is a long time coming. Even the Obama administration was complaining that Russia was violating this treaty as far back as five six years ago.

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    That's true. This has been a long fought battle with Russia over the future of the treaty. I would say that both Russia and the United States had some reasons to want to get out of it but unfortunately neither the United States or Russia is really thinking about what it's losing when this treaty goes away.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the reasons that people find this like John Bolton and others say, hey this is less relevant today because the landscape has changed since when the treaty was written. You've got drones that are technologies that weren't included in the treaty in the first place. You've got different world powers now that have nuclear weapons. Is that fair?

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    Well I mean the world changes every day. The question is whether or not we are safer or less safe without a treaty that bans these land based missiles in Europe. The reality is that now Russia is free legally to keep deploying what had been an illegal system. It makes it easier for them to move them around and test them. The United States is about to start testing its own version of these missiles and going to try and deploy them in Europe and leaders in Russia, in Europe and in the United States are going to have less time to make decisions in a crisis or if there's a military incident with these short flight time fast flying missiles in and around Europe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So if we, the United States, helps save for example, NATO countries arm themselves, now what, that raises the potential threat because everyone's on a hair trigger and everyone's got missiles right on the border?

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    Well actually European countries were free to build and employ these missiles on their own if they wanted to. They are not party to the IMF treaty. This was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union then some other parties joined when the Soviet Union fell apart. So if France or Poland or Germany wanted to build these missiles they could have. The reality is the United States and NATO don't need these systems because we have air launched and sea launch missiles and long range ballistic missiles that can target what we need to target in Russia. The problem was that Russia no longer saw value in this treaty and cheated on it. The question is whether or not we did a good enough job trying to bring them back into compliance or whether the United States under John Bolton who doesn't really care about arms control said you know what, this is a great excuse to get out of this treaty and we can do some damage to the arms control regime which we really don't care for anyway.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And the United States says listen, we also need to include China in this conversation. China wrote back yesterday saying you know what you guys are in a different league, doesn't make any sense. I mean, does the United States want to will the United States and Russia come down to China's level of weapons? Unlikely. And do they want to sit there and allow China to come up to our level of weapons? Probably not.

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    Right. Well China has had a very small nuclear arsenal for decades and they show no signs of trying to race to catch up to the United States or Russia. Both the United States and Russia have about 4,000 nuclear weapons each. China has less than 400. So we are 10 times the size of China. They do have intermediate range missiles because their issues, their security is related to their near abroad. The chairman or the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said we don't need land based missiles in East Asia because we have ship based and air base systems. So the push to pull out of this treaty and to develop some of these systems are not driven by military requirements, they're being driven more by ideology and they have them, so we need them too. That doesn't make a whole lot of military sense.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally what's the ripple effect of this treaty on the next big one that's coming up in a couple of years.

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    Well this is I think why most people are sort of saving their ammunition over the death of the INF treaty we're sad to see it go but the real target for John Bolton and Donald Trump is the 2010 New Start Arms Control treaty that limits both U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550. John Bolton hated this treaty. Donald Trump doesn't like it because it was negotiated by Obama basically the double kiss of death for this administration. The treaty can be extended for five years. But John Bolton recently said he sees no reason to extend it. And there's a good chance that Donald Trump will try to withdraw from the agreement unless Congress can restrict his freedom to do so.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right Jon Wolfsthal, director of the Nuclear Crisis Group joining us from Washington. Thanks so much.

  • Jon Wolfsthal:

    Sure. Thank you.

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