Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

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In 1987 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signed the first major Soviet-U.S. disarmament agreementthe Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The pact broke precedent in three ways. Previous treaties limited weapons, but the INF Treaty stipulated abolition of top-of-the-line missiles. Second, the deal was highly asymmetrical: Moscow gave up more than Washington. Third, the treaty's provisions were to be verified not just by "national means" (mainly, spy satellites), but also by on-site inspections by Soviets in the United States and Americans in the USSR.

Demand for such a treaty arose in the 1970s when the USSR began to deploy what the West called SS-20 missiles. These were two-stage, inter-mediate-range missiles, many of them mobile, hard for the United States to track or attack. Since most SS-20s targeted Europe (some aimed at China), they were intimidating to America's NATO partners.

The Reagan administration proposed a "zero option." If the USSR abolished all its SS-20s, the United States would not build an equivalent. After Moscow refused, the United States deployed in Europe two kinds of INF: cruise missiles that could fly in under Soviet radar, and ballistic missiles with warheads able to reach Kremlin bomb shelters.

Seeking better relations with the West, Gorbachev put aside his objections to the U.S. quest for antimissile defenses. Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987 signed a treaty that obliged both countries to destroy all their ground-based missiles, both ballistic and cruise, with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. To reach zero, the Kremlin had to remove more than three times as many warheads and destroy more than twice as many missiles as Washington, a process both sides completed in 1991. Skeptics noted that each side retained other missiles able to do the same work as those destroyed and that INF warheads and guidance systems could be recycled.

See also: cold war; strategic arms limitation treaties; strategic defense initiative; zero-option


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Walter C. Clemens Jr.

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Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

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