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The Journal Gazette

Monday, February 11, 2019 1:00 am

Undoing a nuclear blunder

Bloomberg Opinion editorial

The Trump administration's decision to pull out of the 1987 treaty with Russia on intermediate-range nuclear forces is a mistake. For all its faults, the pact was one of the West's great Cold War triumphs, and it continued to serve U.S. interests.

Fortunately, if the administration is willing to think again, there's a way to correct the error.

The White House said the treaty had to go mainly because Russia has been cheating. The U.S. has evidence that Moscow violated the agreement by developing and deploying ground-based cruise missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,500 miles. Russia denies that the systems breach the pact, and has made an unfounded counterclaim that the U.S. has been doing proscribed research.

Even allowing for Russia's violation – a measured transgression, less than an outright annulment – the treaty was good for the U.S. because it made America's European allies safer. Recall that the Soviet Union agreed to it only under duress after the Reagan administration strong-armed West Germany and other countries into housing Pershing II and cruise missiles, which Mikhail Gorbachev likened to “holding a gun to our head.” EU officials tried last-minute diplomacy to save the pact, but to no avail.

Now those U.S. allies face the prospect of large numbers of sophisticated Russian missiles on their eastern flank, possibly armed with nuclear warheads. Western European governments would almost certainly resist U.S. efforts, if any were forthcoming, to place new weapons on their soil in the manner of Ronald Reagan. So the rift between the U.S. and Europe is growing even wider. And if, as some suspect, the Trump administration is eager to weaken arms-control regimes around the globe, it isn't just Europe that needs to worry.

The remedy for the administration's lapse of judgment might be the New START agreement. This initiative of the Obama administration slashed Russian and American nuclear arsenals across the board, but is due to expire in 2021. The failure to adjust and renew it might incite a dangerous and vastly expensive new arms race. One valuable adjustment would be to make a new and improved INF part of talks.

Fortunately, Vladimir Putin's military ambitions are constrained by his struggling economy, so he's eager to renegotiate New START. The U.S. should come to the table and propose measures on intermediate-range missiles as part of the deal. Russia might not go for an outright ban – like the U.S., it is wary of the Chinese threat – but it might agree to caps, or to refrain from positioning such weapons against Europe. This would leave U.S. allies on the continent safer, while allowing Washington (and Moscow) a freer hand in the Indo-Pacific.

At the same time, the U.S. should approach China about limiting these weapons in a three-way deal with Russia. Conceivably, this could pave the way for a global agreement, bringing in India and Pakistan, whose feud has had South Asia on edge for decades. At the moment, Beijing is flexing its military muscles across Asia, and would be reluctant to go along. But the possibility of expanded U.S. and Russian arsenals in the Indo-Pacific could change that thinking down the road.

The Trump administration needs to keep in mind a golden rule of arms control: The U.S., thanks to its unmatched conventional military power, almost always gains from nonproliferation agreements. The trick will be to use New START and what might follow to get the two rival nuclear superpowers on board.