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The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Could Be In Trouble


An entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated by a treaty 30 years ago. Now it's making a reappearance. Intermediate-range missiles were once deployed in Europe and the Soviet Union. They were only eight minutes flight time from their targets. As NPR's David Welna reports, the treaty that banned those missiles is fraying.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: If there was one moment that signaled the coming of the end of the Cold War, this may have been it.


RONALD REAGAN: For the first time in history, the language of arms control was replaced by arms reduction - in this case, the complete elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles.

WELNA: President Ronald Reagan with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at his side preparing to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty. It called for the destruction of hundreds of intermediate-range land-based missiles in Europe and the Soviet Union. Steven Pifer was on the team that negotiated that treaty.

STEVEN PIFER: The treaty will celebrate its 30th anniversary on December 8 of this year. And I fear the treaty is not going to have many more birthdays after that.

WELNA: That's because the U.S. says Russia is cheating. Here's General Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, speaking to Congress earlier this year.


PAUL SELVA: We believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

WELNA: In a tit-for-tat move, a group of Republican senators says the U.S. should match the Russian challenge and develop the same kind of banned missile. One of them is Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

RON JOHNSON: Russia probably already has blown that treaty up by violating it. So what we need to make sure is we have a strong military. And certainly I'd like to beef up our missile defense even more so.

WELNA: And the Trump White House agrees. When Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain rolled out the annual Defense Authorization bill on the Senate floor, it had money in it for the banned missiles.


JOHN MCCAIN: Sixty-five million dollars for a research and development program on a ground-launched intermediate-range missile in order to begin to close the capability gap opened by the Russian violation of the INF Treaty without placing the United States in violation of the treaty.

WELNA: Not in violation because the treaty does permit research and development but not testing or deployment. Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren says funding such a missile makes no sense.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Either we are authorizing millions of taxpayer dollars to be wasted on research and development of a missile we never intend to build or test, or we are pushing the door wide open to an upcoming violation of the INF Treaty.

WELNA: If the INF treaty were to collapse, that could spell doom for the only other big arms agreement with Russia that still stands, the New START Treaty, says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.

HANS KRISTENSEN: The real issue for the United States I think is not so much about, should we do this? It's more like, how do we influence the Russians? And I think this is the worst way to do it.

WELNA: And as George Shultz points out - he was Reagan's secretary of state when the treaty was signed - any land-based intermediate-range missiles that the U.S. might build could not be based on American soil.

GEORGE SHULTZ: To be useful, they have to be deployed in Europe, somewhere where they can reach Russia. Otherwise they don't mean anything.

WELNA: The last time the U.S. placed nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, more than a million people there protested in the streets. There's no assurance that those missiles would be any more welcome this time should the U.S. ultimately deploy them. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.