The announcement by President Donald Trump that the US is to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 stirred quite a controversy.
Responses ranged from cautious support from the UK to a rebuke by the European Commission and the German foreign minister and the usual spasm of angry threats of retaliation from Moscow. There are some sentimental reasons for mourning the treaty if the US walks out: it is, after all, one of the two still-standing pillars of the arms-control regime created during the Cold War or in its immediate aftermath to maintain strategic stability. It was instrumental in reducing the substantial risk of a surprise nuclear attack (or a conventional one that could be mistaken for nuclear) that might lead to an all-out nuclear exchange and the end of the human race. It was a crown jewel in the arms-control agenda, for it not only reduced but altogether eliminated an entire class of weapons deemed too destabilising and dangerous, as well as fostering significant innovation and a qualitative leap in the development of verification mechanisms. Russia’s blistering response is also understandable and predictable: it is a perfect opportunity to score a propaganda victory and to project the impression that Moscow is holding the moral high ground.
However, it cannot be ignored that the treaty’s demise was long anticipated. Russia’s non-compliance, which started as early as the middle of the first decade of this century, turned the treaty regime into a slow-moving car crash during Obama’s presidency. Moscow was suspected of developing and deploying variants of its shorter-range ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) that potentially breached the INF Treaty range limits of 500 to 5,500 km. Keen to “‘reset” relations, the Obama administration initially chose to ignore such potential non-compliance—a stance that helped to secure the New START agreement in 2010 but which hardly made the INF Treaty’s long-term prospects brighter. The clandestine erosion of the INF Treaty by Moscow probably seemed a small price to pay for getting a new deal on strategic nuclear arms reductions.
In 2014, however, as Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and invaded its Donbass region—and thus ruined its relations with the West—Washington started to complain formally about Moscow’s potential violation, only to hear counter-accusations that it was actually the US which was in non-compliance (due to the technical possibility of adapting the vertical launcher systems of SM-3 missile defence interceptors in Poland and Romania to fire GLCMs of a prohibited range). But in the absence of stringent and intrusive verification mechanisms such as on-site inspections, which had been phased out by 2001, the veracity of such claims and counter-claims was hard to establish. (The only way to do so is through so-called “national technical means”.) The INF Treaty simply became a stick for both sides to beat one another with as part of a growing political confrontation.
Now, the poor, battered treaty car simply drove into a perfect storm called “Donald”. It obviously stood little chance of surviving a president—currently supported by a new national security adviser long known for his adversarial attitude towards arms control—who thought that all existing treaties, be they in trade or security, had been designed to swindle America or lock it into a position of inferiority and weakness. Russia was cheating and expanding its options to intimidate Europe, while the US maintained its compliance and stayed away from developing and deploying a class of weapons that could strengthen its hand in dealing with Moscow and, more importantly, China (which is not party to the treaty). This certainly appeared an unacceptable state of play to the US administration. That much was signalled by various US officials—the defence secretary, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs and the ambassador to NATO—on a number of occasions. It was also clearly stated in the latest US Nuclear Posture Review. The only shock would come from the speed with which Donald Trump decided to abandon the hapless treaty, which again should not have been a big surprise given his impulsiveness and disregard for the slow-moving and orderly interagency process in Washington.
There is still a chance that some new regime will emerge from the ruins of the Cold War relic. Abrasive and rash as the intended withdrawal may appear (without knowing about the preceding slow-motion crash), it shows that Trump remains true to his bargaining style, already demonstrated in dealing with North Korea as well as in re-negotiating trade relations with Canada and Mexico. Doubling down on Russia and demonstrating very clearly what could be the full consequences—a Reaganesque arms race that Russia simply cannot win—he may indeed succeed in bringing Russia to the negotiating table in order to work out a new deal. But given the total lack of trust and goodwill on both sides as well as China’s growing threat that seems to weigh heavily on the minds in Washington, this is an unlikely prospect. This means the Europeans will have to learn to navigate a strategic landscape where they can no longer indulge themselves in the liturgy of repeating how much they appreciated the importance of the treaty.
To be blunt, the Europeans bear a degree of culpability in the INF Treaty’s implosion and probable collapse. When the Obama administration eventually began to call Moscow out for its non-compliance, most of the European allies remained reluctant to follow suit. While not being parties to the treaty, they remained beneficiary stakeholders, yet they had been unable and unwilling to stick their necks out and speak up for the treaty in ways that could have prompted some second thoughts in Moscow. They eventually rose to the challenge and rallied, somewhat cautiously and in a caveated way, behind the US. At the NATO Summit in Brussels in July 2018, they expressed their belief “that, in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile [9M729], the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the Treaty”. It seems, however, to be a case of too little, too late. Trump has just made a mockery of the Alliance’s expression of value afforded to the INF Treaty in the very same declaration.
Herein lies one serious risk of the US withdrawal from the treaty. Historically, the INF Treaty has played an instrumental role in managing intra-Alliance relations and processes as much as those between the USSR/Russia and the United States. It helped to put a lid on and, to a certain degree, contain the anti-US and anti-NATO sentiments among the peaceniks of Europe—all those possessed by a constant desire to condemn any US efforts to maintain stable and effective deterrence while being willing to ignore or forgive Moscow’s shenanigans that trigger those efforts in the first place. Now this lid will be off, and Moscow will have one more tool to use against the Alliance’s cohesion.
There will be those in Europe who will be supportive of the US move (e.g. Poland, the UK, the Baltics) and those opposed (e.g. Germany). Some will offer to host the new US offensive missile systems on their territories. Others might seek ways to reduce the exposure of their territories to weapons that Russia is bound to produce and deploy in much larger quantities without the INF Treaty’s constraints and without the need to maintain deniability of its non-compliance. All this might seriously undermine NATO’s drive to further strengthen the deterrence and defence posture on its eastern flank. So far, there has been sufficient momentum behind NATO’s unity of effort and adaptation, but there are many good reasons why the Alliance is so slow-moving when it comes to such sensitive topics as changes in its nuclear policy. Trump’s bull in Europe’s china shop so eager to go after China opens up further opportunities for Moscow to use its armoury of new medium-range stand-off weapons as a genuinely psychological and political instrument to incite divisions within the Alliance between hawks and doves—both within nations and among them.
Down the road, however, there is far more serious risk of a nuclear conflagration, through accident or misunderstanding. Arms races are inherently destabilising—even more so when they involve multiple parties. They often kick into motion the highly dangerous logic of pre-emption. The nature of weapons covered by the INF Treaty—but also of those outside its scope such as sea- and air-launched cruise missiles or short-range ballistic missiles—is such that it is almost impossible to know whether they carry a nuclear warhead or a conventional one until the moment of impact. All this makes the heightened geopolitical tensions and confrontations susceptible to misunderstanding, over-reaction and escalation. If the Cold War history of arms-control regimes is anything to go by, the state of relations between the West and Russia will probably have to get much worse—perhaps even having to experience again a Cuban-style missile crisis or an Able Archer 83 kind of sobering event—before the sides are pushed, even shocked, into a new regime to maintain the strategic balance in Europe.
And even then, it will require a favourable political context and committed personal leadership on both sides to make this happen. With the impetuous “imperial president” habitually bragging about the size of his nuclear button on one side, and the paranoid “presidential emperor” on the other side, musing about a collective national journey to heaven after a nuclear Armageddon, it is quite difficult to see the prospect of such a new dawn for arms control and strategic stability.