The INF Treaty: 25 Years and Holding

By Greg Thielmann

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed in Washington 25 years ago tomorrow, December 8, is legendary among arms controllers for its improbable outcome and the depth, pace, and duration of its accomplishments. With implementation of this agreement, an entire category of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons delivery vehicles –land-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km — was eliminated. Equally important, the United States and the Soviet Union found their way back to negotiating mutually beneficial nuclear arms control limits, which established new precedents for on-site verification measures.


The treaty was signed by Ronald Reagan, an American president who had always been highly skeptical of any arms control agreement negotiated with the Soviet Union. The other signer of the document, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, represented a country, which President Reagan had described as an “evil empire.”

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the signing of the INF Treaty in the White House. (Click image for video of the remarks made.)

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the signing of the INF Treaty in the White House. (Click image for video of the remarks made.)

The treaty dealt with U.S. missiles deployed to five European NATO countries, which were not parties to the negotiations, and whose populations were divided if not outright hostile to those deployments. Some of the Soviet missiles covered by the treaty were not deployed in Europe, could not target Europe from their deployment areas, and in fact were oriented toward Asian countries, also not represented at the negotiating table.

The INF Treaty helped end the Cold War, which had given birth to the weapons systems ultimately eliminated by the treaty. One of the two state signatories to the treaty ceased to exist four years later, but a total of nearly 2,700 missiles was nonetheless eliminated on schedule in the meantime. The duration of the treaty was unlimited and the sides continue to comply with its terms, possessing no treaty-banned missiles in their inventories.


At least nine countries maintain land-based ballistic and cruise missiles in the range categories that are banned to the United States and Russia under the INF Treaty. The size of their missile inventories is difficult to calculate precisely. Using public estimates of launcher numbers and arbitrarily assigning three missiles to each launcher yields a current aggregate close to the number of missiles eliminated by the INF Treaty. However, in most respects, the nuclear-tipped INF systems of the present pale in comparison to those of the past.

The majority of the U.S. and Soviet INF missiles eliminated were intermediate- or medium-range systems with a nuclear mission – representing the capability to deliver some 2,300 nuclear warheads on more than 1,000 missiles to distances well beyond the battlefield. No current INF system has the accuracy and speed combination of the U.S. Pershing 2 medium-range ballistic missile or the destructive capability of the Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missile with three independently-targetable warheads.

Today, only China deploys INF missile numbers approaching the size of the Cold War superpower arsenals, and unlike those of the United States and the Soviet Union, most Chinese missiles are not believed to be assigned nuclear missions and are not postured for rapid response. Seven countries currently deploy missiles in the long-range INF category (>1000 km) that was originally targeted by INF negotiators; the other two maintain small inventories of Scud C short-range ballistic missiles. Only five countries are significantly expanding or modernizing their land-based INF inventories – China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea – only three are known to have developed suitable nuclear warheads for these missiles.

Briskly Done

In a world growing accustomed to the continuing delays by the United States and the Russian Federation in fulfilling their obligations to eliminate stockpiles of chemical weapons 15 years into implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and impatient with New START’s long, seven-year period for the United States to eliminate 324 strategic ballistic missile launchers and heavy bombers, the INF Treaty stands out. In spite of the deep mutual suspicions at the time of treaty signing and the unprecedented and intrusive implementation procedures that had to be carried out, the INF Treaty parties eliminated 2,692 in only three-and-one-half years after the treaty entered into affect.


More remarkable, perhaps, is that the treaty has thus far survived – through the break-up of the Soviet Union, the expansion of NATO, a continuing revolution in military technology, U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Russian suspension of Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty implementation, and continuing advances in the missile capabilities of states bordering Russia. The treaty contains no internal self-destruct mechanism; the duration is indefinite.

History and Harbinger

Gaining a good understanding of the complicated INF story requires exposure to the perspectives of multiple participants and close observers. As someone who was involved in INF arms control policy implementation at the State Department, at the initial round of the Geneva talks, and later at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn during the lead-up to the INF deployments, I would like to list my own favorite witnesses and narrators.

A Soviet SS-20 IRBM, on display near the Great Patriotic War Museum, Kiev. August 2005.

A Soviet SS-20 IRBM, on display near the Great Patriotic War Museum, Kiev. August 2005.

Strobe Talbott’s Deadly Gambits (1984) provides an accurate account of the bureaucratics in Washington and the early negotiations in Geneva. Jeffrey Herf’s War by other Means (1991) recounted the critical domestic and foreign policy backdrop to Germany’s implementation of NATO’s Dual-Track Decision, the policy adopted in 1979 to simultaneously deploy INF missiles in Europe and negotiate mutual limits on such deployments. Herf’s take can be leavened with reading the “INF Negotiations” chapter of Hans Dietrich Genscher’s memoir, Rebuilding a House Divided. Finally, Paul Nitze’s memoir, From Hiroshima to Glasnost (1989), contains an authoritative inside look at the INF negotiations in the early years, including the doomed “walk in the woods” gambit.

Arms Control Today marked the 20th anniversary of the INF Treaty in 2007 with a “Looking Back” feature by Rose Gottemoeller, now Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Written at a time when the U.S.-Russian relationship was “at a new post-Cold War low,” Gottemoeller elaborated on ways the powerful legacy of the treaty could be harnessed to enter a new era of achievement in arms control. As fate would have it, she was soon in a position to help carry out these prescriptions as the Obama Administration’s negotiator for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), concluded in 2010.

In this 25th anniversary year, many valuable contributions are available for exploring the history of the negotiations and pondering the lessons it offers, although perspectives from Moscow are still less readily available – at least in the West. Two important new accounts have just been released. David T. Jones has assembled a collective memoir from seven INF negotiating team members, The Reagan-Gorbachev Arms Control Breakthrough (2012), dedicated to the late Amb. Maynard “Mike” W. Glitman, the principal U.S. negotiator of the treaty. Another insightful analysis has been provided in a December 2012 Brookings Institution publication, authored by Avis Bohlen, William Burns, Steven Pifer, and John Woodworth, “The Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces: History and Lessons Learned.”

In the last chapter of the Brookings publication, the authors extract lessons from the INF experience, and relate them to today’s arms control challenges. In a similar spirit, I offer some random but relevant observations:

The imperative of talking

— Although the United States and the Soviet Union began INF negotiations with a great deal of animosity and mistrust, the sides at least had had a long history of extensive diplomatic contacts and had been directly represented in each others’ capitals for decades. The opposite is true for either of our high-priority contemporary negotiating partners, the North Koreans and Iranians; we have had neither diplomatic relations nor embassies in each others’ capitals for decades.

— In the case of the INF negotiations, when the Soviets walked out of the talks, they lost political ground. When, in its early days, the Reagan administration considered abandoning the negotiating track of the Dual-Track Decision, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and European emissaries like FRG Disarmament Commissioner Friedrich Ruth pushed back hard, explaining the political realities reflected in the retrospective judgment of the Brookings authors: “[T]the United States could not have maintained Alliance solidarity had it not heeded the Europeans’ imperative need for an arms control track.” Yet in the case of North Korea and Iran, diplomatic engagement has often been treated by the United States as an enormous concession to the other side.

Keeping perspective

— The direct threat Iran poses to NATO Europe in our current decade is nothing like the threat the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies posed to a smaller NATO Europe in the 1980s. Moscow then had 1,800 mobile, nuclear-tipped warheads, which could target Europe from deployment areas deep inside Soviet territory, along with effective strategic parity with the United States. In stark contrast, the range of Iran’s missiles barely reaches the periphery of Europe. Moreover, its missiles are inaccurate and armed only with high-explosive warheads. It will have no nuclear-tipped missiles threatening Europe for years and no hope in the foreseeable future of achieving parity even with its small, nuclear-armed regional neighbor, Israel.

Remaining flexible

— In any negotiation, there are multiple and different outcomes that would improve the security positions of each side. The 1982 “walk in the woods” formula (a ceiling on each side of 225 “nuclear delivery systems in Europe” with a sub-ceiling of 75 “nuclear missile systems in Europe”) was negotiated by Ambassadors Paul Nitze and Juli Kvitsinskiy during a walk in the mountains above Geneva, but subsequently rejected in capitals. Had the formula been accepted, the outcome would have reduced the military threat to NATO, satisfied the political needs of the alliance, and established important on-site inspection precedents several years earlier than accomplished under the eventual INF Treaty. It would also have avoided much of the subsequent political turmoil over basing and opened up a path for immediate and deep cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which had become an increasing liability for NATO.

There are undoubtedly also multiple acceptable solutions to resolving some of our seemingly intractable current crises. Reaching an apparent dead-end in one approach does not preclude alternative paths.

Negotiating leverage

— It is difficult to imagine an acceptable solution to the INF issue without NATO’s demonstrated capability to win European host governments’ support for new Pershing and cruise missiles deployments in Europe. It is likewise difficult to imagine Iran reaching an agreement to further limits on its nuclear program if it had not felt the pain of sanctions and does not see improved cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency as the only way to gain relief.

— The other side of the coin is that negotiating leverage should not be confused with the ends of negotiation. Just as the ultimate goal of U.S. INF deployments to Europe was not a higher level of missiles, but a more stable and less heavily armed balance, the ultimate goal of sanctions is not the ruin of Iran’s economy and downfall of the government, but rather the government’s acquiescence to a peaceful and transparent nuclear program.


— Reaching agreement between wary foes who perceive vital security interests at stake is never easy. Resolving the issue of INF missiles in Europe took a full decade of sustained attention by leaders in all NATO capitals, considerable resources – financial, military, and committed personnel – and the civic engagement of anti-nuclear forces across Europe to keep up the political pressure for results. The U.S.-Soviet negotiations themselves lasted more than six years, but few today would say it was not worth it.


The INF Treaty was unique, arising out of a particular place in time and circumstance between the two superpowers. Yet it can also encourage thinking about extending the bilateral ban on INF missiles to other countries.

The next most logical nation to involve in INF missile constraints is China. This rising power figures prominently in the military planning of both Russia and the United States. China’s INF missiles can target U.S. allies in the Pacific and Russia’s vast eastern half. The hundreds of Chinese missiles in this range category create pressure for military countermeasures and have been cited by some Russian military leaders as a reason for considering withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Even Russians more favorably disposed toward the treaty, like Aleksey Arbatov, Scholar-in-Residence of Carnegie’s Moscow Carnegie Center, have linked future nonstrategic nuclear weapons limits to limits on Chinese INF systems.

Contemplating a constructive agenda for the Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference, agreed to at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, has led some to propose a regional ban on long-range INF missiles. Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies argues that agreement to a ban on missiles with ranges in excess of 3,000 km “would yield a tangible result that sets a precedent and breaks some of the taboos surrounding arms control in the region”.

Not just history

Marking the INF Treaty’s 25th anniversary should therefore go beyond paying homage to a past achievement. It should also suggest operating instructions for untying some of the Gordian knots we face in the present and providing hope for building a better future.

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3 Responses to The INF Treaty: 25 Years and Holding

  1. jkmhoffman says:

    Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

  2. Pingback: The INF Treaty: 25 Years and Holding | Arms Control Now: The Blog of the Arms Control Association

  3. This is just reality. And I think our riders will understand it. This is one thing I am very optimistic about. Overall, they may not be delighted, but they will understand it and I think if we will explain it, they will accept it.

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