MOSCOW - In December 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the White House for a ceremony that signaled the changing times.
Reagan, a Cold War hardliner who'd once labeled the U.S.S.R. "the Evil Empire," was all smiles as he and Gorbachev sat down to sign the latest symbol of growing U.S.-Soviet detente — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, known as the INF Treaty.
"It was a momentous occasion," remembers George Shultz, Reagan's Secretary of State from 1982-1988 — and a key figure in crafting the INF deal.
Schulz, now 98 years old and still active as a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, credits the INF agreement in large part to a shift in Reagan's attitude toward nuclear weapons.
"He thought they were immoral. Where is it written that a man can push a button and kill a million people? That's God," Schultz says.
Gorbachev also viewed nuclear weapons as "genocidal" says Pavel Palazhchenko, a Soviet diplomat who oversaw the INF negotiations and served as Gorbachev's longtime English translator.
"Gorbachev and Reagan had the goal of arms reduction and they did not allow themselves to be pushed off track," Palazhchenko says.
"[It was] definitely a huge step forward. Two great nations, two nuclear superpowers have finally been able to stop the arms race in at least two categories of nuclear weapons."
With the agreement, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. formally renounced the development and deployment of ground-launched missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Both sides were still armed with enough nuclear weapons to destroy one another — and the rest of the planet. But George Shultz says the INF's elimination of short- and medium-range arsenals made the world infinitely safer in one critical regard — time.
"Between when they're fired and when they hit is only about 10 or 11 minutes. So if you're trying to do something about it, you don't have much time," Shultz says.
A new nuke arrives
The crisis around shortened impact times started in the mid 1970s. The Soviet Union had developed a new class of mobile medium-range nuclear missiles — the so-called SS20s — that were capable of striking targets in Western Europe with little warning.
The problem? The U.S. had nothing comparable. At least not initially.
It was not until the early 1980s that the U.S. unveiled the Pershing II, which the U.S. and its NATO allies threatened to deploy in West Germany — as close as possible to the communist bloc borders — in 1984.
Palazhchenko, Gorbachev's aide, says the threat proved convincing to Soviet hardliners who — up until that point — saw little point in negotiating.
Now they understood time was working against the Soviets, too.
"When the Americans completed their program of deployment, then the situation became at least on the face of it quite different," Palazhchenko says. "Americans have ballistic missiles that have a flight time to Moscow of less than 10 minutes."
While strategic balance had been restored, the short-range weapons also magnified the risks of what some called a potential "Euroshima."
Where once the Cold War threat consisted of missiles lobbed across oceans, the new quick delivery missiles incentivized a first strike and immediate response. There was little time to verify whether an attack was real — or a false alarm.
Fear of the superpowers stumbling into nuclear Armageddon gripped the European public. Thousands marched in opposition to the U.S. missiles — a factor that increasingly influenced Washington's own decision-making.
"We were negotiating not only with the Soviets but the European public," recalls Shultz. "Who would want a nuclear missile on their soil? It makes you a target."
Indeed, public opposition in Europe — and a desire to grab the moral high ground — drove President Reagan to embrace a concept called the "Zero Option."
The idea? That when it came to negotiating over intermediate and short-range nukes, Reagan wouldn't just push for the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to limit their arsenals. They'd demand both sides give up everything.
Critical to selling the idea to skeptics were intensive inspections — with Reagan often citing an old Russian proverb: doverai no proverai. Trust but verify.
"The INF treaty contains in it the most clear verification provisions — onsite inspections!" Schultz says. "People said we could never get that but we did."
Over the next three years, inspectors observed as both sides destroyed their arsenals — over 800 missiles by the U.S. and nearly double that from the Soviet side.
Viktor Litovkin, a military journalist who covered the events for the the Soviet daily Izvestia newspaper, remembers watching as Soviet engineers carried out the treaty's provisions — destroying missile after missile with tears in the eyes.
"I understood why," says Litovkin. "It was their life's work and they were experiencing every parent's worst nightmare."
They were outliving their children.
INF 1987-2019 (RIP)
Today, the Trump administration argues it is the INF Treaty that has now outlived its use.
Last October, President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser, John Bolton, traveled to Moscow to deliver the news: The U.S. would leave the INF agreement amid long-standing U.S. accusations that Russia was violating the treaty.
The INF was also "outmoded," argued Bolton, so long as other countries — like China — that have immediate-range weapons weren't part of the agreement.
"Under that view, exactly one country was constrained by the INF Treaty — the United States," Bolton said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin soon followed suit — announcing that Russia, too, was leaving the pact.
Barring a last-minute reprieve, the INF treaty expires Aug. 2. Both sides have vowed to develop weapons once banned under the INF.
A new arms race?
All of this has left Europe, once again, the battleground in a potential new arms race — with tomorrow's weapons promising shorter warning times.
"We will miss the INF when it's gone," says Ulrich Kuhn, an arms control expert at the Institute of Peace Research and Security in Hamburg, Germany.
"We are going back to the Cold War."
Kuhn points to divisions in Europe over how to best respond to any future Russian nuclear deployments — feelings exacerbated by the history of former Warsaw Pact countries that joined the NATO alliance following the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
"We might see a situation where Central and Eastern European states say we really need to push back against the Russians and other Europeans saying we don't want that," Kuhn says.
"That could put NATO in serious trouble."
Meanwhile, nearly 30 years after the initial INF Treaty signing, the diplomats who crafted the agreement worry today's politicians are too cavalier about the nuclear threat.
"When something like the INF goes down the drain almost like nothing, it shows you the degree to which people have forgotten the power of these weapons," Shultz says. "One day it'll be too late."
"We are, unfortunately, moving toward a situation where we might — maybe within a few years — have no arms control, no mutual verification and no mutual restraint," warns Gorbachev's aide, Palazhchenko.
"The INF was a success story," Palazhchenko says. "And there aren't many success stories in U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russia relations."