A Post-Arms-Control World: The United States, Russia, and a New Policy Paradigm after the INF

As this historically significant arms-control treaty unravels, two of the world’s superpowers are heightening the potential for military conflict.

Matt Schleupner is a foreign area officer with the U.S. Army.  His regional specialty is Europe, with a focus on the Black Sea and NATO.  He is currently an officer in the Washington, D.C. area working on issues concerning treaty enforcement and threat reduction.  He graduated in 2017 from Johns Hopkins SAIS.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or any other agency of the United States government.


On December 4, 2018 the United States made the decision to formally withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This decision directly stemmed from Russia’s deployment of the 9M729-missile system (SSC-8). The development and deployment of this weapon, a ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile system that uses both nuclear and conventional warheads and boasts a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, is expressly prohibited by the INF Treaty.[1] With this historically significant arms-control treaty unraveling, two of the world’s superpowers are heightening the potential for military conflict.

As the United States moves into this new chapter, it should articulate a revised and comprehensive Russia policy.  This policy should address both the short-term and long-term issues that the negation of the INF creates, both from within and outside the arms-control world.  The goal would be two-fold: first, to ease the fears of the United States’ European allies, many of whom are concerned about a reignition of intermediate-range nuclear weapons proliferation on European soil; and second, to secure U.S. national interests abroad. Taken together, this means preserving the trans-Atlantic alliance and prioritizing deterrence of Russian aggression.[2]

The INF’s Inauguration: Origins and Raison D’être

The INF is an arms-control treaty negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union (and its successor state, the Russian Federation). Signed in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. Senate that same year, the Treaty banned the possession, production, or flight-testing of land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers designed for ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers, or 310 to 620 miles, as well as those with ranges between 1,000 and 5,500 kilometers, or 620 to 3,420 miles.[3] For our European allies, banning these short-to-medium range weapons was imperative to ensure that nuclear-capable weapons systems, perfectly designed to target the European continent, did not proliferate.

It was the development of the Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer that was the initial spark for the INF. The Soviet Pioneer was a mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of delivering warheads, both conventional and nuclear, to Western Europe from deep within Soviet territory.[4] The introduction of this weapon system led to intense discussions among the United States and NATO Allies over its potential impact on Western European capitals. While the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) between the United States and the Soviet Union produced the SALT I Treaty, which reduced the number of inter-continental ballistic nuclear weapons, these newly developed intermediate-range weapons posed a new and emerging threat to the European continent. This new threat was the emergence and proliferation of mobile, land-based nuclear weapons on the European continent, fixed on European targets. With pressure mounting from allies in Europe, the United States entered into arms-control negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1979.[5]

The resulting INF Treaty proved successful in eliminating thousands of weapons and weapon-systems from the U.S. and Soviet/Russian stockpiles.[6] In 2007, though, beginning with public statements from the Russian government that the Russian Federation was going to unilaterally withdraw from the Treaty because of alleged U.S. and NATO violations concerning missile defense systems in Continental Europe, the Treaty began a slow descent into disrepair.[7][8] For the United States, the tipping point precipitating a formal process of withdrawal from the Treaty came as continual development and deployment of the Russian SSC-8 and SS-25 missile systems, which are in direct violation of the INF Treaty, comingled with Russian encroachment and aggression in areas such as Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

A Post-INF World from Russia’s Perspective

The return of great power competition over weapons systems on the European continent may be an unnerving prospect for some to consider. The thought of road-based ballistic missile systems patrolling in Russian territory, targeting capitals of NATO allies, seems like a major and threatening escalation of force. Additionally, as a result of the classic security dilemma, from the Russian perspective, NATO’s defensive missile systems in Romania and Poland could be seen as an escalation in their own regard.[9]  And, although the Alliance has thus far supported the U.S. decision to do so, withdrawal from the INF Treaty places great stress on the NATO Alliance.

In order to construct a coherent and pragmatic post-INF U.S. policy toward Russia, a basic understanding of Russian foreign policy views is necessary. First, Russian military doctrine is, at best, murky regarding whether it is willing to preemptively use low-yield nuclear weapons during armed conflict.[10] In the specific case of Europe, Russian policy can differ depending on whether one turns to written doctrine or public statements. Remarks by President Putin and those in the Defense Ministry have been mistranslated, misinterpreted, and caused great debate.[11] In some cases, Russian policy on the use of nuclear weapons has been directly stated as first-strike in nature, while written policy has been more nuanced.

Unfortunately, the United States has limited options in the field of low-yield nuclear weapons, and if Russia knows, as it surely does, that a state can only respond to a low-yield nuclear attack with either high-yield weapons or a limited capacity of low-yield weapons, it greatly diminishes the credibility of any retaliatory threat.

Second, Russia has a long-term foreign policy objective of restoring itself as a great and esteemed world power. Dating back to at least Peter the Great, Russia has viewed itself, as international affairs analyst Bobo Lo has stated, with an “abiding sense of greatness and strategic entitlement.” What’s more, Russia has typically been “suspicions toward outside influences; [had] an imperial mentality; and [had] a profound political and moral conservatism.”[12] As noted by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in his now famous editorial in Global Affairs, “it has long been noticed that a well thought-out policy cannot be detached from history.”[13] This “continuity of history,” as he describes, is the backbone of the Russian worldview of great power competition. Lavrov finishes his essay with a quote from Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin writing, “Greatpowerdness [sic] is not determined by the size of the territory or the number of inhabitants but by the ability of people and their government to assume the burden of great international tasks and deal with these tasks creatively. A great power is the one which, while asserting its existence and interest…, introduces a creative and accommodating legal idea to the entire community of nations, the entire ‘concert’ of peoples and states.”[14] U.S. and NATO policy makers working on arms-control have to understand Russia’s perspective and brainstorm responses with that viewpoint in mind. With this stated, an effective policy will require a two-pronged approach from the United States: a short-term tactical response and a long-term strategic response.

A New Paradigm: U.S. Tactics & Strategy Post-INF

Once the INF Treaty is dissolved, a short-term response must ensure that the U.S. and Alliance members remain resilient enough to conduct a counter-strike if attacked. Toward this end, the United States should take a three-pronged approach. First, as sea-based nuclear weapons are not covered under the soon-to-be defunct INF Treaty, the United States should increase its low-yield, sea-launched nuclear threat deterrent. This would allow the United States to respond to Russian deployments of intermediate-range missiles on the continent, while at the same time not require seeking permission from European allies to place additional weapons on European soil. Second, the United States should immediately seek to develop and retrofit Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania with cruise missile defense systems. The developing Russian threat centers on missile technology, which brings into sharp relief the fact that the United States and NATO’s current missile defense systems are not designed to actively protect against cruise missile-type technology.[15] Third, the United States should increase production and development of ground-launched cruise missile capabilities for future contingency operations.  The United States should make sure it maintains technological superiority over a potential adversary in this field.  Washington can implement this policy while not deploying nuclear assets to the European continent until such time as is operationally necessary.

Meanwhile, the long-term response should center on strategically fighting against what Foreign Minister Lavrov has referred to as the “now historical West,” meaning a declining West incapable of leading into the future.[16]  In other words, if Russia, in their long-term view of international affairs, believes they are now on the offensive because the West is in decline, then, the U.S. strategy should be to focus efforts concerning strengthening itself and the trans-Atlantic alliance. This entails constructive (or, perhaps, offensive) thinking from the West, instead of reactionary thinking and policy.

The United States can achieve this long-term strategy in three ways.  First, the United States can lead NATO further into the Russian sphere of influence. This starts with Georgia and its accession into NATO.  Further opportunities for expansion include Bosnia as well as Moldova and Belarus.  The United States could even push for NATO enlargement into other areas of the globe. This policy would certainly be confrontational towards Russia, but it would send a clear message that Russia does not hold as much leverage as they think they do in areas around their periphery, while simultaneously averting direct military confrontation with them.

Second, there needs to be a greater synergy between NATO and EU policy on Russia. This could come in the form of cooperation between the EU and NATO on organizational expansion possibilities or leveraging EU power on civilian-led capital investment (energy, digital, and infrastructure). If the United States can help align EU and NATO policies, these organizations can place a burden on Russia through an expanded array of instruments of power, instead of simply relying upon the military.  This strategy has the potential to minimize proliferation of weapon’s systems on the European continent by eschewing increased military confrontation. This is a safe way to pressure Russia and the Putin regime.

Finally, in order to be prepared for strategic competition with Russia, the United States, along with the NATO Alliance, should develop a sixth military domain: the cognitive domain. The age of social media, disinformation, and the power that both can wield is radically reshaping the information ecosystem and the nature of competition therein. Russia recognized this power early and has sought to use it in innovative, albeit, deceptive and destructive, ways around the world.[17] The United States needs to enhance its ability to drive narratives and counter communication tactics, particularly in an era of resurgence in Russian propaganda. At present, U.S. capacity in this domain is lagging, but it can quickly improve if the United States focuses on its messaging in a more active manner through the use of modern tactics of dissemination of information, while staying within the lines of international norms.

This cognitive domain would go beyond current ideas of information domains, or information warfare.  It would focus on the cognitive effects of information, or the battle of narrative at times of war and peace.  Western allies could look to recent ideas written on memetic warfare by the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, which employs social media as a medium for propagating memes.[18] A meme is information that propagates, has impact and persists. Memes can be ideas or symbols, catchphrases, hashtags, or words wrapped in cultural significance. Memetics tries to study this process within a form of neuro-cognitive warfare, a subset of information warfare.  To operationalize memes would be memetic warfare. If properly understood and utilized, memetics could better position the United States and its Allies to counter the pernicious and pervasive impact of Russian disinformation efforts.


In a post-INF Treaty world, rising fear over nuclear weapons proliferation on the European continent is understandable. This, though, is the unfortunate reality of the situation. China, never a signatory to the INF, has continually developed and deployed intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Russia’s backyard, undermining the strategic logic of the Treaty and causing both the United States and Russia to reevaluate its utility. The demise of the INF has been overdetermined and predestined for some time. Recognizing this reality, it is thus necessary for the United States to enact policies that represent a paradigm shift in mindset on how it deals with Russia. This entails expanding NATO, facilitating alignment of our Allies’ policies and perspectives, and ensuring that we proactively augment our defense capabilities. Doing this will not only make our European allies more secure, but also better protect U.S. interests abroad.  If, however, U.S. policy remains hesitant and reactionary, there is a real danger that the United States will not be prepared for the challenges a post-INF world has in store.


[1]Reif, Kingston. “Trump to withdraw the U.S. from INF treaty.” Arms Control Association. 2019

[2]Borger, Julian. “EU warns Trump of nuclear arms race risk after INF withdrawal move.” The Guardian. 2019.

[3]Garthoff, Raymond L. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. 1994.

[4]Wittner, Lawrence S. “Reagan and Nuclear Disarmament”. Boston Review. April 1, 2000.

[5]Burr, William; Wampler, Robert. “‘The Master of the Game’: Paul H. Nitze and U.S. Cold War Strategy from Truman to Reagan.” October 27, 2004.

[6]Woolf, Amy F. “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: Background and Issues for Congress”. Congressional Research Service. January 27, 2017.

[7]Pifer, Steven. “The INF Treaty, Russian Compliance and the U.S. Policy Response.”  Brookings Institution. 2014.

[8]Some remain skeptical of Putin’s real motivations behind his statements about the future of INF in 2007. Some say a reemerging Russia, by 2007, was primed to resume their role on the international stage, and statements about INF were just demonstrative of this.

[9]Herz, John H. “Idealist Internationalism and the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 2, No. 2. 1950.

[10]Government of Russia. “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation.” Russian Federation. 2015. https://rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.

[11]Saradzhyan, Simon. “Putin’s Remarks on Use of Nuclear Weapons Are Confusing, But Unlikely to Constitute a Shift in Nuclear Posture.” The Belfer Center. Harvard University. 2018.

[12]Hamilton, Robert. “Russia’s Tragic Great Power Politics.”  Foreign Policy Research Institute.  2019.

[13]Lavrov, Sergey. “Russia’s Foreign Policy in a Historical Perspective.” Global Affairs. 2016. https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/Russias-Foreign-Policy-in-a-Historical-Perspective-18067.

[14]Lavrov, Sergey. “Russia’s Foreign Policy in a Historical Perspective.” Global Affairs. 2016. https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/Russias-Foreign-Policy-in-a-Historical-Perspective-18067.

[15]Missile Defense Agency. “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense.” 2018. https://www.mda.mil/system/aegis_bmd.html

[16]Lavrov, Sergey. “Russia’s Foreign Policy in a Historical Perspective.” Global Affairs. 2016. https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/Russias-Foreign-Policy-in-a-Historical-Perspective-18067.

[17]U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security.” 2019.

[18]Giesea, Jeff. “It’s time to embrace memetic warfare.” NATO STRATCOM Center of Excellence. 2017.

Matt Schleupner
Matt Schleupner

Matt Schleupner is a foreign area officer with the U.S. Army.  His regional specialty is Europe, with a focus on the Black Sea and NATO.  He is currently an officer in the Washington, D.C. area working on issues concerning treaty enforcement and threat reduction.  He graduated in 2017 from Johns Hopkins SAIS.