The Demise of the Nuclear Forces Treaty. What Now?

August 3rd, 2019 - by Sir Adam Thomson & Dmitry Polikanov & Katarzyna Kubiak / European Leardership Council/ European Leadership Network

Russia and US leaders sign historic treaty on the control of nuclear weapons.

The Demise of the Nuclear Forces Treaty. What Now?

Sir Adam Thomson/ European Leadership Network

(August 2, 2019) — For more than 30 years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty underpinned European security, eliminating an entire category of nuclear and conventional missiles primarily targeted at Europe. However, following years of mutual allegations of non-compliance and with trust between Russia and the West at a low ebb, the challenges to the INF have proven insurmountable.

Today, the United States withdraws from the treaty, with Russia having suspended their participation by law signed by President Putin on 3 July. Does this mark the beginning of a renewed arms race in Europe? What does this signify for the future of nuclear arms control, including the prospects for extending New START? Can a path forward be found to reduce nuclear risks based on common security interests? 

In two new articles, experts weigh in on what the demise of the INF means for European, and global, security:

A gloomy outlook for nuclear arms control, by Dmitry Polikanov.

As most of the treaties that have formed the core of the arms control system are either gone or being undermined, the end of the INF Treaty seemed inevitable in the context of the US administration’s disinterest in arms control, worsening US-Russia relations, and a reluctance by both sides to carry the bilateral burden of nuclear disarmament. What can the international community, and Europe in particular, do to fill in the arms control gap?

End of the INF. What now?by Dr Katarzyna Kubiak.

Today’s culmination of the long INF drama now places NATO, and especially its European members, under enormous pressure to address the ensuing security challenges. NATO defence planners already decided to respond to the Russian treaty non-compliant missile, but are still agreeing on the details of their response. However, is this only fighting the superficial symptoms instead of the disease of an ever-growing crisis in the Euro-Atlantic area?

In addition, the European Leadership Network has for several months been analysing developments around the INF and how they fit into the broader context of the current state of nuclear arms control.

For more background on this issue, we direct you to ELN’s INF dossier.

Sir Adam Thomson is the director of the European Leadership Network (ELN).

Russian and US leaders abandoned the INF Treaty.

A Gloomy Outlook for Nuclear Arms Control

Dmitry Polikanov / European Leadership Network

(July 31, 2019) — Last year Russian Valdai Club experts published a report about the current world order. They compared it to a shabby house, one which cannot be reconstructed nor pulled down but requires constant repair so not to collapse too quickly. The same analogy can be applied to the state of bilateral arms control.

With this perspective, the INF Treaty was doomed to failure. A landmark Cold War agreement, it eliminated for the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons with strict verification mechanisms. However, over the past 10 years or more, under the pretext of mutual accusations of violation, both parties were driving the other to get rid of this legacy treaty.

Russia did not want to be the first to lay the INF to rest. Moscow is fond of international law and historically has always seen itself as one of the few guarantors of strategic stability. Believe it or not, Russia’s official policy is based on preserving as many treaties as possible.

The philosophy is simple: a stoic belief in the strength of legally-binding commitments, even in a crumbling world.

The last decades have seen the United States adopt a completely different approach. The sole superpower has no desire to stay bound to agreements that place constraints on its political and military superiority. This attitude has further consolidated due to President Trump’s mindset and ongoing power race with a rising China.

The Pretext for the INF’s Demise

In this respect, the INF has fallen victim to the merging of three factions in the US. The first, the Pacific-oriented lobby, wants leverage against China and its increasingly sophisticated nuclear arsenal. They argue that they need INF-prohibited medium-range missiles back.

The second group is comprised of those willing to punish Russia for anything, real or bogus, as part of the political witch-hunt in the US. The third group consists of fervent opponents of any treaties and additional restrictions on US military development, like National Security Advisor John Bolton.

This is not to mention the military-industrial complex which received orders for the research and development of new weapon INF banned systems long before the US officially withdrew from the treaty.

In the end, there was no escaping the mindless pretext of mutual allegations of non-compliance. Washington complained about the Russian SSC-8 cruise missile, despite the Russian attempts to demonstrate most of the missile’s technical characteristics.

Moscow, in response, argued that it faced a threat from NATO’s missile defences, specifically the MK41 vertical launch system and its target missiles. Neither party provided clear evidence of its allegations. In the world of post-truth all that was needed was the allegations to do the job. Nowadays, you either trust or distrust a party and its position, irrespective of rational conviction. The optics, political climate and the volume are far more important.

As a consequence, after the US decision to withdraw from the treaty Russia received political dividends from the domestic public and non-Western world. It was portrayed as a peace dove out to save global agreements. Though in reality neither the US or Russia wants to save the INF.

Moscow’s position is clear — we have taken so many steps forward, there is no more room for flexibility and concessions. Russia is not going to further deteriorate the situation and will likely act reactively, in its usual manner.

If the United States refrains from stationing medium-range missiles in Europe, Moscow won’t take any proactive measures in this area either. However, if we get back to a situation akin to the early 1980s with NATO deploying Pershing missiles and adopting a dual-track decision, the response will be harsh.

The strategic risks for Moscow are higher this time. Poland and the Baltic states are much closer to the Russian capital than Germany. Meanwhile, in response to the US military developments, Russia will continue working on the ground-based version of the SS-N-27 “Sizzler”, on hypersonic missiles and on the Poseidon nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle — all openly declared in President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly in February 2019.

The Not-so-rosy Picture for the Future of Arms Control

The future of arms control is in danger. Most of the treaties that formed the core of the arms control system are either gone, or are being undermined. So there is likely more to come with respect to the dismantling decades-long agreements.

What’s worse is that Russia and the United States no longer want to lead by example by carrying the bilateral burden of disarmament, while other nuclear armed states are reluctant to join them on this peaceful path. In this way, the original sin of the nonproliferation and arms control regime — the exclusiveness of the recognized nuclear club — starts to play a more and more crucial role in global affairs.

Furthermore, generational change and rapid technological progress indulge those who believe that a nuclear war can be won. People are less fearful of the probability of a nuclear war, the history of nuclear tragedies is a distant memory (though thanks to the “Chernobyl” HBO series it has returned slightly to the general consciousness) and political tensions between Moscow and Washington or Washington and Beijing are growing. All this helps the warmongers to sound assertive.[1]

This creates a mood of pessimism about the extension of START III. The Trump administration plans to delay the negotiations until early 2020. This will shorten the time for negotiations, making them fiercer and placing them in the midst of the US presidential campaign, reducing the chances for further disarmament.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world attempts to stimulate peace, through for example the creation of the Nuclear Ban Treaty. However, there is little response on the part of real nuclear stakeholders who demonstrate no desire to get rid of their arsenals and do their best to advance them.

Unlike during the Cold War, the antinuclear movements are marginal in politics. Hence, it may seem from the nuclear-weapon capitals that the international community is indifferent. The current dominating sentiments in the Western world indicate clear unwillingness to negotiate with President Putin about anything serious and strategic, thereby essentially postponing any action until 2024 or 2025.

What Can the International Community, and Europe in Particular, Do?

The common goal of Europe, the United States and Russia could be to restrict China, India and Pakistan, or at least to involve them in a multilateral process of disarmament. The recent Russian-Chinese joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability in the modern era signed on June 5, 2019 is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, its wording does not imply any further practical steps and may be interpreted as anti-American, thus inhibiting the prospects, if any, for trilateral progress.

NATO’s usual cautious position in supporting the United States without really doing anything to help resolve the disagreement is also dangerous. It puts the final nail in the coffin of the INF at the time when a reasonable and assertive European position is needed to influence all parties and save arms control.

Obviously, treaties do not prevent countries from taking certain actions. However, they do set at least the minimum threshold of diplomatic politeness, strengthened by the fear of mutually assured destruction. At this point, the future of arms control looks gloomy.

It would be in the interest of the international community, notably European countries, to exert more pressure on Washington and Moscow to save the existing agreements, to convince other nuclear-weapon states across the globe to make the disarmament process multilateral and to shape new commitments. Unfortunately, there is little enthusiasm, and we seem doomed to see the continuation of the crumbling world order for the foreseeable future.

 [1] Pursuing enhanced strategic stability through Russia-US dialogue.

Recommendations by Russia-US working group reported by Adlan Margoev,

May 2019 (

Dmitry Polikanov is Chair of the Trialogue Club and member of the Expert Council of the Russian Government. The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.

Donald Trump and John Bolton prepare for a new nuclear arms race.

End of the INF. What Now?

Katarzyna Kubiak / European Leardership Council

 (August 2, 2019) — On August 2nd 2019, the United States withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The day marks not only a de facto end of the accord, but of the Cold War era of arms control. NATO now needs to ensure that the INF Treaty’s collapse will neither exacerbate NATO-Russia confrontation, nor lead to a destabilizing arms build-up in Europe. Europe could also consider the INF Treaty collapse a trigger for a long-overdue, comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security review.

This landmark agreement eliminated an entire category of conventional and nuclear ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5500 km. Curbing miscalculation and providing limited escalation stability, it was once considered a cornerstone of European security.

But following a five year drama, beset with mutual accusations of noncompliance between Washington and Moscow, and little appetite to provide substantive evidence of compliance from either side, the treaty slipped into lip service of its envisioned goal. By now, neither the United States nor Russia seem to bear any interest to its preservation.

NATO, which collectively concluded that Russia had developed and deployed a non-compliant missile system, is now preparing for a world without the treaty.

In this post-INF world, Russia will be free to deploy an unlimited number of INF-range missile systems next to its border with the Western alliance; in doing so, constraining NATO’s freedom of manoeuvre in conflict, or to achieve strategic advantage and force NATO to surrender to Russian demands.

By the 2019 December NATO summit in London, allies are expected to order a feasibility study to examine defense options for protecting against any new non-compliant Russian cruise missile. Designing a response, however, will not be an easy feat. It will require NATO to carefully tailor its deterrence and defense adjustments, and address new threats in an unprovocative and measured way — a highly subjective term.

The United States is likely to set the tone for the intra-alliance discussion. In part, due to it having more time to consider potential responses and a willingness to spend on delivering them. In part, because European allies differ in their approaches, and do not possess appropriate resources for a substantive reaction, at least in the short-term.

What we do know is that only days after its intended withdrawal from the treaty, the US plans to test at least four conventional ground-launched missiles within the INF Treaty-range. Some of these may be available for fielding as soon as at the beginning of 2021. The question remains, however, over where should they be deployed. Washington has not yet held talks with European capitals on hosting new missiles — at least no publicly.

Yet such capabilities only make sense if deployed in Europe (and/or Asia, which is another INF-range relevant region). Europeans face the question, therefore, first on whether to host INF-range weapons, and if so, where to station such capabilities.

Another consideration will be the terms on which Washington might be willing to support Europe in: Will it want its own deployments, or offer selling and leasing systems to interested European governments?

NATO defense officials are sure to look at NATO’s air and missile defenses. One option is to bolster their ballistic missile defense system to defend against cruise missiles (e.g. by equipping land based Aegis Ashore sites with the Standard Missile-6 interceptor, an option also being considered by Japan).

Key elements of which belong to the United States, with Europeans sharing and operating respective command and control assets. Yet re-purposing NATO’s ballistic missile defense system from defending against threats from outside of the Euro-Atlantic to include Russia may be a hard sell to some capitals in the Old Continent; especially those who agreed to join under the explicit condition it would not target Russian capabilities.

Adapting NATO’s ballistic missile defenses, therefore, also runs the risk of strengthening Russia’s long-held conviction that this system always was, and continues to be, aimed against it.

Another option would be to augment existing, national cruise missile defense capabilities with new assets. NATO has identified cruise missile threats from as early as the 1990s but for different reasons abstained from focusing on their respective defense capabilities.

Consequently, the alliance currently has no collective or comprehensive defense system against ground-launched cruise missiles. While there are not many off-the-shelf systems on sale and existing technology allows for limited defense coverage only, European allies would most likely become the main financial contributor, if they decide to take this path.

Defense planners will also be considering broadening NATO’s deterrence drills. While this is advantageous from the perspective of allied military preparedness and coordination, it remains to be seen if this would add any value to NATO’s existing deterrence efforts, prevent, or indeed, reverse any unwanted Russian behavior.

Another discussion point in Brussels is publicizing the alliance’s nuclear exercises. Such a measure could actually be advantageous, but for reasons beyond deterrence. Military-political openness and a demonstration of intent eases exaggerated threat perceptions, and prevents dangerous misinterpretation.

While NATO’s military-defensive response to the new post-INF threat is legitimate, it is only a superficial ‘patch and mend’ to a major problem: a growing crisis in the Euro-Atlantic amidst global geopolitical shifts. Military remedies will only put off solving critical issues between NATO and Russia, deferring to a later point, and most likely contributing to a costly and potentially dangerous arms build-up in the meantime.

Embracing change as a given, taking lessons learned from previous arms control agreements and acknowledging technological and political developments, Russia and NATO should finally sit at a table to seriously review, fix, amend and expand what is left from the once glorious European security architecture.

This also means talking about such irritating issues like ballistic missile defense and non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe. Only this way, through constructive dialogue can long-term, sustainable, solutions be found.

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