Overwhelming majority of Americans believe U.S. should remain in controversial arms accord

From left: President Trump; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan sign the treaty eliminating U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range and shorter-range nuclear missiles Dec. 8, 1987, at the Washington summit. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP, AFP/Getty Images)

American voters overwhelmingly reject the prospect of withdrawing from a 32-year-old arms-control accord with Russia, which forbids either nation from fielding intermediate-range nuclear weapons, according to an in-depth University of Maryland survey scheduled for release Tuesday.

President Trump announced his intention last October 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, on which any nuclear exchange of such weapons is likely to 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 favored observing 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 explain the context 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 between 310 and 3,420 miles. Respondents were told that the United States and Russia are currently accusing each other of violating the treaty; both sides deny they are in violation.

Nuclear experts representing a broad array of viewpoints reviewed the survey in advance to ensure its 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 former President Barack Obama and Trump had unsuccessfully tried to convince Russia to come back 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 United States must impose consequences for Russia’s violation, and that withdrawal from the treaty could have the desired effect of extracting a Russian admission of violations that could lead to compliance. Furthermore, respondents were told, the INF Treaty restrains the United States from deploying the prohibited weapons in Asia, even though China, which is not 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.

In this video grab provided by RU-RTR Russian television via AP television on March 1, 2018, a computer simulation shows Russia’s new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile flying over the globe. President Vladimir Putin declared that Russia has developed a range of new nuclear weapons that he says cannot be intercepted. (Photo: RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

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 Washington 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 counterbalance. The United States 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 does not 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, which showed most of them disagree with the president’s chosen course of action. A greater majority of Republicans polled found the argument for withdrawal more 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 withdrawal.

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 United States 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 could 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 was first vetted in Congress. “It’s not only not clear, it’s not being discussed.”

Footage from the web site of Russia’s Defense Ministry shows the nuclear submarine Yuri Dolgoruky test-firing Russia’s Bulava missiles on the White Sea on May 22, 2018. The exercise was the first launch of four Bulava missiles in a single salvo. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)

The conclusion of the INF Treaty was a pivotal moment at the end of the Cold War, 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 for deploying the 9M729, an intermediate-range cruise missile.

Russian leaders have denied that the weapon’s range violates the INF, and complain that Washington refuses to engage diplomatically on the issue. They have also expressed objections to U.S. missile defense batteries in Europe that they say could be deployed offensively.

Trump has expressed hope that a bigger and better defense pact will replace the INF: a comprehensive accord between all the nations that possess intermediate-range nuclear weapons. That’s an ambitious goal, since such a group would include not only Russia and the United States, but China, India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.

Supporters of U.S. withdrawal from the pact are frustrated that Russia has overtly flouted the terms of the treaty and shows no sign of coming into compliance with it. However, some arms control experts have complained that withdrawal from the INF Treaty would stoke an arms race between the United States 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 greater increases expected in coming years.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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