WASHINGTON -- At the time, the treaty was landmark, deemed a new cornerstone of strategic stability.
The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement for the first time eliminated an entire class of missiles and set up an unprecedented system of arms control inspections -- all hailed as stabilizing the rivalry between the keepers of the world's two largest nuclear arsenals.
Now, that treaty between Washington and Moscow, known as the INF, is on the rocks, with U.S. President Donald Trump announcing plans last week to abandon the accord, and national-security adviser John Bolton saying in Moscow on October 23 that the United States will be filing a formal notification of its withdrawal.
What's next may be the demise of an even bigger, more comprehensive bilateral arms treaty called New START. And experts suggest that if that deal were to become obsolete, it would all but guarantee a new arms race.
"If the [INF] treaty collapses, then the first new START treaty (signed in 2010) and the follow-on New START treaty will probably follow it into the dustbin of history," Aleksei Arbatov, a negotiator of the 1994 START I treaty, said in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Signed in 2010 in Prague by U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, New START built on the original START I by effectively halving the number of strategic nuclear warheads and launchers the two countries could possess. In February, each country announced it was in compliance.
Though the treaty is due to expire in 2021, the two sides could agree to extend it for another five years.
From Moscow's side, there is interest. During their meeting in July, President Vladimir Putin suggested to Trump that they extend the pact. From Washington's side, it's unclear if there is any interest in doing so.
"If the INF treaty goes under, as appears likely, and New START is allowed to expire with nothing to replace it, there will no verifiable limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the early 1970s," says Kingston Reif, a nuclear analyst at the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank. "The risk of unconstrained U.S.-Russian nuclear competition, and even more fraught relations, would grow."
After simmering quietly in classified intelligence discussions, the INF dispute moved to the front burner in 2014 when the U.S. State Department formally accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range that exceeded treaty limits.
Russia denied the accusations, even as Washington officials stepped up their accusations in 2017, accusing Moscow of deploying the missile.
In November of that year, Christopher Ford, then a top White House arms control official, for the first time publicly identified the Russian missile in question as the 9M729.
Trump has pushed the line that, if Russia is not adhering to the INF, then the U.S. won't either.
Ahead of Bolton's meeting with Putin on October 23, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Russia had violated the INF, saying that "Russia was and remains committed to this treaty's provisions."
Following Bolton's meeting with the Russian president amid two days of talks with Russian officials, the U.S. national-security adviser downplayed suggestions that the demise of the INF treaty would undermine global stability. He pointed to the U.S. decision in 2002 to withdraw from another important arms control agreement: the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, also known as the ABM.
As a top arms control official in President George W. Bush's administration, Bolton was a vocal advocate for pulling out of the ABM treaty.
"The reality is that the treaty is outmoded, outdated, and being ignored by other countries," Bolton said, referring to the INF agreement. "And that means exactly one country was constrained by the treaty" -- the United States.
In an interview with the newspaper Kommersant published ahead of his arrival in Moscow, Bolton suggested that Trump administration officials didn't see any urgency in deciding New START's fate.
"I'm a veteran arms control negotiator myself, and I can tell you that many, many of the key decisions are made late in the negotiations anyway, so I don't feel that we're pressed for time," Bolton said.
"One of the points we thought was important was to resolve the INF issue first, so we knew what the lay of the land was on the strategic-weapon side. So, we're talking about it internally.... We're trying to be open about different aspects of looking at New START and other arms control issues as well," he said.
All indications to date are that the Trump administration is lukewarm at best on the need to extend New START. When the administration in February released its Nuclear Posture Review -- a policy-planning document laying out the circumstances under which the United States would use its nuclear arsenal -- there was no mention of extending the treaty until 2026.
Losing either one of these agreements would be highly detrimental; without both, there will be no arms control constraints on nuclear forces, which will exacerbate today's already high risks."-- Ernest Moniz and Sam Nunn
In testimony last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, David Trachtenberg, the deputy U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said the administration's review of whether to extend New START was ongoing.
Matthew Bunn, who oversees the Project On Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Kennedy School, suggests that instead of pulling out of the INF, the Trump administration should push for a bigger deal that includes not only dismantling the Russian missile in question but also extending New START and ensuring it covers the new generation of Russian weaponry under development.
"Letting the whole structure of nuclear arms control collapse would bring the world closer to the nuclear brink, roil U.S. alliances, and undermine the global effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons," he said.
"Both sides are now complying with New START and benefit mutually from its limits, verification and the predictability -- all the more so while the viability of INF is in question," Ernest Moniz, U.S. energy secretary under Obama, and Sam Nunn, a former Republican senator and arms control advocate, wrote in an op-ed article. "Losing either one of these agreements would be highly detrimental; without both, there will be no arms control constraints on nuclear forces, which will exacerbate today's already high risks."
Ford and other U.S. officials had already signaled that the United States was moving more aggressively to push back on the alleged Russian missile deployment.
Asked whether Washington planned to develop and deploy its own intermediate-range missiles -- similar to what happened in the 1980s before the INF treaty was signed -- Bolton said the Trump administration "was a long way" from that point.
Still, the prospect prompted the European Union's foreign office to release a statement that criticized both Washington and Moscow.
"The world doesn't need a new arms race that would benefit no one and on the contrary would bring even more instability," it said.