By Patrick Malone, Center for Public Integrity
American voters overwhelmingly reject the prospect of withdrawing from a 32-year-old arms-control accord with Russia that forbids either nation from fielding intermediate-range nuclear weapons, according to an in-depth University of Maryland survey scheduled for release today.
President Donald Trump announced last October his intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), and began taking formal steps to do so last week, arguing that the Russians’ 9M729 cruise missiles, believed by U.S. intelligence agencies to have a range of well over 310 miles, were in violation of the treaty’s terms. The weapons that are the focus of the agreement are particularly worrisome to U.S. allies in Europe, where any nuclear exchange of such weapons would likely be focused.
Two-thirds of survey respondents oppose abandoning the treaty, and instead favor pursuing diplomacy to resolve the dispute over compliance by the Russians, according to the survey, conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland in conjunction with the University’s Center for International and Security Studies. The Center for Public Integrity provided consulting for the survey. Even the majority of Trump’s fellow Republicans who were surveyed—55 percent—said they oppose withdrawal from INF, including more than half (51 percent) of self-described Trump voters polled. Among Democrats, 77 percent of respondents said they favor sticking with the treaty.
“Concerns about Russian cheating, while substantial, were not strong enough to override support for this treaty-based effort to control nuclear arms,” said Steven Kull, director of Program for Public Consultation. The national survey of 1,131 registered voters, which carries a 2.9 percent margin of error, was conducted online between Jan. 7 and Feb. 1 as part of a larger University of Maryland poll on U.S. nuclear weapons policy that will be released shortly.
Respondents received a briefing beforehand to understand the history of the INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to outlaw either nation from possessing land-based missiles with flight ranges of 310-3,420 miles. Respondents were told that the U.S. and Russia are currently accusing each other of violating the treaty; both sides deny they’re in violation.
Nuclear experts representing a broad array of viewpoints reviewed the survey beforehand to assure fairness and accuracy, and to guarantee that the strongest possible arguments for staying in or abandoning the treaty were presented to respondents. The argument for withdrawal noted that the presidential administrations of both Barack Obama and Trump had unsuccessfully tried to convince Russia to come into compliance with the INF treaty after years of allegedly fielding a missile that falls within the forbidden flight range. The case was made that the U.S. must impose consequences for Russia’s violation, and withdrawal could have the desired effect of extracting a Russian admission to violations that could lead to compliance.
Furthermore, respondents were told, the INF Treaty restrains the U.S. from deploying the prohibited weapons in Asia, even though China, which isn’t a party to the treaty, has already made intermediate-range weapons. Sixty-five percent of respondents found this argument for withdrawal persuasive, including 80 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats. The case for remaining in the INF Treaty, respondents were told, hinged largely on the accord’s significance for American allies. NATO partners nervous about Russia possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking European capitals with little or no warning still support the INF Treaty, and the U.S. would have a difficult time convincing some allies in Asia and Europe to allow U.S. intermediate-range nuclear weapons to be deployed on their soil as a counter-balance.
The U.S. should thus try harder to negotiate differences with Russia, according to this argument, which was judged to be persuasive by 68 percent of overall respondents, including 58 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats. But when asked for a final recommendation after hearing the arguments for and against withdrawal, a mere 30 percent favored the choice of starting the withdrawal process and formally exiting the treaty if Russia doesn’t make the changes the U.S. seeks. Staying in the treaty and pursuing negotiations to address the concerns of both nations had the support of 66 percent of those who responded. The remaining 4 percent were undecided.
Republican respondents provided particularly interesting perspectives that showed most of them disagree with the president’s chosen course of action. A greater majority of Republicans polled found the argument for withdrawal compelling (80 percent) than the argument for remaining in the treaty (58 percent). But a clear majority, 55 percent, recommended preserving the treaty after hearing the arguments for and against. Among Democrats, just 20 percent favor withdrawing.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said the survey results reflect a bottom line view that the treaty has kept the U.S. and Europe safer while tamping down a potential arms race. “Americans, whether Republicans or Democrats, support verifiable nuclear arms reduction agreements that reduce the threats posed to the U.S. and our allies as the INF Treaty does,” Kimball said in a phone interview.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., said it’s not clear from Trump’s decision exactly how more favorable terms can be achieved, or what the desired terms might include. “What are we competing for? Are we seeking a better agreement? What does that look like? How do you get that?” asked Sokolski, who was on the staff of Sen. Dan Quayle, R-Ind., when the INF Treaty got its first vetting in Congress. “It’s not only not clear, it’s not being discussed.”
The INF Treaty signaled a pivotal moment leading to the end of the Cold War, by triggering the destruction of nearly 2,700 U.S and Russian nuclear missiles within four years of its adoption. Since 2014, the U.S. State Department has reiterated time and again that Russia is in violation of the treaty because it deployed the 9M729, an intermediate-range cruise missile. Russian leaders have denied that the weapon’s range violate INF, and complain that the U.S refuses to engage diplomatically on the issue.
Furthermore, Russian leaders have expressed objections to U.S. missile defense batteries in Europe that they say could be deployed offensively. Trump has expressed hope that something bigger and better will replace INF—a comprehensive accord between all the nations that possess intermediate-range nuclear weapons. That’s an ambitious goal, as such a group would include not only Russian and the U.S., but also China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. Supporters of the withdrawal are frustrated that Russia has overtly flouted the terms of the treaty with no sign of coming into compliance, yet some arms control experts have complained that withdrawal from the INF Treaty would stoke an arms race between the U.S. and Russia to develop intermediate range forces, at a time when defense spending—including modernization of the nuclear arsenal—is already steadily climbing, with even larger leaps expected in coming years.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.