Cold winds are blowing in the heat of the summer in the northern hemisphere, as the United States will formally withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement next month, signaling the start a new Cold War.

Both Washington and Moscow are expected to begin development and deployment of land-based, submarine-launched and bomber-deliverable ballistic conventional and nuclear missiles.

The INF treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987, was forged to eliminate only all land-based, intermediate conventional- and nuclear-tipped ballistic and cruise missiles with range capabilities of 500 to 3,500 kilometers.

When Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF treaty on December 8, 1987, it did not only bind the US and Russia to dismantle their arsenal, but the breakup of the former USSR in the early 1990s expanded the treaty to cover other independent former Soviet republics, like Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had also destroyed their intermediate-range missiles and Bulgaria was the last Eastern European country to dismantle its missiles in 2002 with US funding.

US excuse to walk back from the pact

Five years ago, the United States accused Russia of violating the INF treaty by developing and testing a missile that could hit targets beyond 500 kilometers, a threat to Washington’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The Obama administration, at that time, did not give any evidence to support its allegations about Moscow’s 9M729 missile range capability. Every year from 2015 to 2018, however, the United States Department of State Compliance Report indicated its concern about Russia’s development, testing and deployment of intermediate-range missiles.

Moscow denied Washington’s accusations, calling these “fabrications,” and even displayed the 9M729 missile early this year to show that its range was below the 500 kilometers prohibited under the treaty.

It also accused the US of developing a weapons system capable of not only intercepting incoming missiles but launching intermediate missiles as well — the MK41 launchers as well as armed drones. Moscow insisted the drones were ground-launched platforms that could deliver intermediate-range missiles.

The final blow came on February 1 when US State Secretary Mike Pompeo announced Washington’s suspension of its obligations under the INF treaty and withdrawal six months later. The US informed Russia about its decision the following day.

Moscow swiftly retaliated, announcing on February 2 its decision to turn its back on the three-decade-old treaty that saw the mutual destruction of nearly 2,700 short, medium and intermediate conventional and nuclear missiles.

The nuclear missile race is on

Thus, the summer heat of 2019 will be chilled by the start a new Cold War as both sides resume development, tests, possession and deployment of intermediate missiles, bringing back threats of a nuclear war.

The demise of the US-Russia strategic stability framework has far-reaching effects on future global security considering the entry of new actors with nuclear weapons capability, new technologies and the stability and cohesion of the US alliance on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

For instance, Ukraine is considering restarting its own nuclear deterrent program once the INF treaty is abandoned. What could stop Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan and China from developing their own intermediate ballistic and cruise missiles to protect their own national interests?

In Europe, members of the NATO have some capability to intercept Russian missiles and two countries — Great Britain and France — have nuclear weapons to launch a counter strike. In 2016, the US deployed land-based Aegis missile interceptors in Romania and in Poland.

In fact, Washington could be using Moscow’s alleged “material breach” of the treaty to scrap the key disarmament deal as it feared that other countries not party to the pact were developing intermediate ballistic missiles, particularly China.

China’s missile program was among the reasons cited by US President Donald Trump when he threatened to abandon the INF treaty in a speech in October 2018.

South China Sea game-changer

Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea had also been a source of nervousness in Washington and its allies in the Asia and Pacific region. The possible deployment of missiles on China’s manmade islands in the Spratlys could become a game changer, pushing away the US Navy away from the strategic waterway.

In the Indo-Pacific region, only India has nuclear weapons and all other allies — Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines and other Asean countries — rely on the United States to shield them from Beijing’s missiles in the event of a major conflict with Washington.

A nuclear weapons-free zone treaty signed by 10 Southeast Asian countries cannot guarantee that the pact can shield them from a nuclear weapons shootout among nuclear weapons states, as the United States has maintained a “neither confirm or deny” on the presence of nuclear weapons on its warships and planes patrolling the South China Sea as well as port visits to Southeast Asian countries.

China has some missile platforms in the South China Sea and any intermediate conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles could target and hit any in the region.

No wonder, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned during a speech in Palawan last November he would not allow any outside powers, including the US and China, to install or stockpile missiles in the country.

Many Filipinos, at that time, did not understand why the president made those warnings, but Delfin Lorenzana spelled out clearly early this year the reason he wanted to review the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a Cold War relic.

“The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future,” the defense secretary said in a statement.

“But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war. In such a case and on the basis of the MDT, the Philippines will be automatically involved. It is not the lack of reassurance that worries me. It is being involved in a war that we do not seek and do not want.”


A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters’ reporting on the Philippines’ war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.