Urgent Question: Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

Yesterday Mark was asked to respond in the House of Commons to an Urgent Question tabled by Fabian Hamilton MP regarding the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. You can find Mark's statement to the House and his response to Mr Hamilton pasted below, as well as his closing remarks, and you can find the entirety of the debate on Hansard by clicking here.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab) (Urgent Question)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

As if to prove that lightning does sometimes strike twice, even in this unnatural world of politics, I am here to address this issue again, as I was on 25 October, deputising for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas, who is once more gallivanting globally. This time he is in Ottawa, where, I am delighted to inform the House, he is in the grip of an even colder spell than we are here—it is minus 7° centigrade, for the record, or so he assured me earlier today.

When I last had the opportunity to respond on this issue in the House last October, President Trump had just announced that it was the intention of the United States to end the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty unless Russia returned to full compliance. Let me once again set out the context. The INF treaty was a 1987 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union that eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 km and 5,500 km. For over three decades now, the INF treaty has played an important role in supporting Euro-Atlantic security, initially removing an entire class of US and Russian weapons, thus making a significant contribution to strategic stability.

While the UK is not a party to this bilateral treaty, we have always made it clear over the years that we ideally wish to see the treaty continue. However, for that to happen, the parties need to comply with its obligations. Sadly, this has not been the case. Despite numerous objections raised by a range of NATO allies going back over five years, Russia has developed new missiles, in direct contravention of the treaty. This includes the covert missile testing, producing and fielding of the 9M729 ground-launch cruise missile system. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said:

“These…missiles are hard to detect. They are mobile. They are nuclear capable. They can reach European cities”.

The US, under both the Obama and Trump Administrations, has made extensive efforts to encourage Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance. It was indeed the Obama Administration who, in 2014, first strongly called out Russia’s non-compliance with this treaty. It is important to acknowledge that, while doing so, the US has continued to meet its obligations under the treaty. However, the US, with the full support of its NATO allies, has been very clear that a situation where the US fully abided by the treaty and Russia did not was not sustainable. On 4 December last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US would suspend its participation in the INF treaty within 60 days—that is, by 2 February 2019— unless Russia returned to compliance.

This constituted an opportunity for Russia to address our shared concerns and to take steps to preserve the treaty. Allies took the opportunity to reiterate this point last month to the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, during the NATO-Russia Council meeting. I have to inform the House that Russia has not taken ​that opportunity. It has offered no credible response, only obfuscation and contradictions designed to mislead. This of course fits a wider pattern of behaviour from Russia aimed at undermining our collective security. We and all NATO allies therefore support the US decision to suspend its participation in the treaty and to trigger the formal withdrawal process. NATO is unified on this process.

It is Russia’s fault alone that we have arrived at this point. President Putin’s statements in the last few days announcing that Russia, too, will suspend its obligations was unsurprising given the fact that it has violated the treaty over the years. Nevertheless, even at this late stage, we urge Russia to change course. The treaty’s six-month withdrawal process offers Russia a final opportunity to return to compliance through the full and verifiable destruction of all its 9M729 systems. That is the best—indeed, the only—way to preserve the treaty.

We remain committed, as do the US and other NATO allies, to preserving effective arms control agreements, but we are also clear that for arms control to be effective, all signatories must respect their obligations. In the meantime, we are working closely with all our NATO allies on the implications for European security. We remain committed to ensuring that NATO has a robust defence posture to deter all threats. As NATO allies said on 2 February:

“NATO continues to closely review the security implications of Russian intermediate-range missiles and will continue to take steps necessary to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the Alliance’s overall deterrence and defence posture. We will continue to consult each other regularly with a view to ensuring our collective security.”

If this treaty falls, we and other NATO allies will hold Russia alone responsible. We urge Russia now to take a different course and to return to full and verifiable compliance.

Fabian Hamilton

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for his statement.

During the weekend, one of the main pillars of nuclear weapons treaties was suspended when first the United States and then Russia withdrew from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. As the Minister said, it was only in October last year that I stood here asking an urgent question on this matter. Back then, the United States was only expressing its initial intentions to withdraw from the INF treaty, citing Russian non-compliance. Regrettably, it has now fulfilled that action. Since then, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has decided to maintain its so-called doomsday clock at two minutes to midnight. In a statement after the US Administration’s decision, the Bulletin noted that we are living in

“a state as worrisome as the most dangerous times of the Cold War”—

a sentiment with which I sadly agree.

What we see in these actions by the United States and Russia is the erosion of the system of multilateralism and the rules-based international order which underpins global peace and security. Leaving the INF treaty is a dangerous unravelling of part of the architecture of trust and understanding that has prevented nuclear conflict—an architecture that was begun 50 years ago with the signing of the non-proliferation treaty, which I ​strongly support. Indeed, this comes only weeks before the 2019 NPT preparatory committee meeting in New York at the end of April.

Along with climate change, nuclear conflict and the devastating environmental impact that it could unleash are two of the most pressing threats to our lives and the future of every living creature on this planet. The suspension of the INF treaty is a sure sign of a dangerous breakdown of trust between the two nations with the vast majority of the world’s nuclear warheads. This has serious implications for future negotiations, including those on extending the new strategic arms reduction treaty, or New START, which is due to expire in 2021. What we see may be the beginning of a new arms race, even more dangerous and unpredictable than the one we saw during the cold war. We now live in a multipolar world in which the US and Russia no longer have a monopoly on the weapons proscribed in the INF treaty, even if they have the majority of warheads.

What assurances has the Minister received from our American allies that suspension of the INF treaty will not begin a new arms race between the United States and Russia involving weapons once again being based on European soil? What contact has he made with other countries that have developed INF-proscribed weapons, including China, so that a future multilateral framework may be developed that could supersede and replace the INF treaty?

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I will touch on two aspects of what he said. The first is what losing the INF treaty means for extending New START, which is a bilateral treaty between the US and Russia that expires in 2021. We were pleased to see both sides meet the New START limits by the deadlines, by the end of last year. We believe that that treaty contributes to international stability. All allies support continued implementation and early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability. It is, of course, for the US and Russia to take forward discussions about extending that treaty.

The hon. Gentleman also raised perfectly legitimate concerns, which I think we all share, about the broader range of challenges for the multilateral system. We will continue to work closely with the US across a wide range of multilateral organisations and issues. He touched on climate change, for which I have Foreign Office responsibility and on which we work closely—if not necessarily as closely as we would like with the federal Administration—with a number of important state governors and others.

May I just say that we, like the US, believe that a number of multinational institutions are in need of reform? On the matter at hand, a situation in which the US is respecting the INF treaty and Russia persistently and consistently is not is simply not sustainable. The UK and all other NATO allies have made clear our support for the US position.

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Mark Field

We are, and remain, a very active member of the United Nations in the Security Council. We are a committed member of NATO, and will continue to be such a member. Our role is important, but this is a bilateral agreement between Russia and the US that was signed three decades and more ago. Obviously, we have interests as a fully engaged NATO member, and will continue to do so.

The idea that we have no say on this matter could not be further from the truth. This issue has been festering, as I pointed out, for five or six years, right from the early stages of the Obama Administration, and it has finally come to a head. As I say, there is one message that will trickle out loud and clear to the Russian authorities. They have a chance to come back to the negotiating table. The US Administration have triggered a withdrawal, but that takes effect over a six-month period. I hope that before 2 August Russia will come back and recognise the importance of the treaty, but it can do so only if it shows the international community that it can be trusted and is willing on the verification of the outcomes.