A landmark agreement of Cold War-era arms control signed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan in 1987, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) banned a whole class of medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.
As those are capable of reaching Russia from Western Europe and vice versa, the treaty aimed to avert an arms race on the continent.
The INF treaty expires on Friday (2 August), and both Russia and the United States have suspended their participation in the treaty, while each side accuses the other of having violated the accord.
Washington announced last year it was withdrawing from the pact, accusing Russia of failing to comply with it. Moscow denies it has violated the treaty with its new 9M729 system and says Washington is withdrawing to pursue a new arms race.
On Thursday (2 August) Germany urged the United States and Russia to preserve what is left of the international arms control framework, a day before the INF treaty was set to run out.
In a statement, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested Moscow was to blame for the expiration of the INF treaty.
“…We regret that Russia failed to do what was necessary to save the INF treaty,” Maas said in the statement.
“With the end of the INF treaty, Europe is losing part of its security,” Maas said. “I am convinced that today we must again succeed in agreeing rules on disarmament and arms control in order to prevent a new nuclear arms race.”
The rhetoric of US, NATO and Russian officials has become sharper in recent weeks.
However, there are ways for NATO to respond to the new security situation.
“We will not mirror what Russia is doing, meaning that we will not deploy, we don’t have an intention of deploying new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference at the Aspen Security Forum in mid-July.
“But we have other options: conventional, we have missile defence, we have increased readiness of our forces,” he added.
In February, countermeasures discussed by NATO defence ministers included an alliance plan to be able to deploy 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels within 30 days or less, the so-called ‘Four Thirties’ Readiness Initiative, by the end of the year.
“It is possible that by October when defence ministers meet again, the first elements of what NATO can do will be presented,” Didier Audenaert, Senior Associate Fellow at the Egmont Institute told EURACTIV, “but I would not expect there to be a nuclear option.”
A leaked report recently had revealed the locations of US and NATO nuclear weapons bases -Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in The Netherlands, and Incirlik in Turkey – in Europe, which had contributed to the European debate.
“If we could in a verifiable way get rid of all the nuclear weapons, which in the current global security situation is not the case, then I think every sensible and reasonable person would do that,” Audenaert said.
Meanwhile, Europe needs to reconsider its security approach.
“If you want to be a credible actor, then you need a true security and defence policy, military capabilities and a planning capability and we are lacking that in the EU,” said Audenaert, “this is why EU-NATO cooperation is crucial.”
Washington has already announced that it is prepared to “pursue development of ground-based, conventional, intermediate-range missile systems,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told the US Senate in written responses to questions.
“The INF Treaty has been a cornerstone of European security – without it, the US and Russia will again have the freedom to develop and deploy mid-range missiles weapon systems (conventional or nuclear),” Bruno Lete, analyst for transatlantic security at the German Marshall Fund, told EURACTIV.
“For Europe, this means a risk of being back in the line of fire — and left to suffer the consequences in case of a crisis,” he said.
According to Lete it is, however, difficult to predict what role the EU will play in the post-INF world and how Europeans should respond to a possible US request to deploy nuclear missiles on their territory in order to deter Russia.
Although at this point Washington has not yet formulated such a request, according to analysts, there are already three possible scenarios that could follow in the months to come.
A European rejection of such deployment of US missile systems on its territory would further erode transatlantic relations and not prevent Russia from deploying its own systems.
If Europe opts for a US-fuelled missile deployment race with Russia, according to analysts it could risk putting itself back in the line of fire and face significant resistance across European capitals.
A third scenario could involve a ‘coalition of willing’ European governments which allow the deployment of US missile systems on their territory.
“This, however, may result in a split inside the NATO alliance and the EU,” believes Lete.
What happens to New START?
At the same time, the demise of the the INF Treaty has triggered fears for the future of nuclear arms control.
The 2010 New START Treaty, another milestone accords between Moscow and the Washington, which caps nuclear warhead numbers, is set to expire in 2021.
According to the Russian foreign ministry, the US is technically violating New START because some US launchers have been converted to non-nuclear use in a way that is not visible to Russia. Moscow therefore argues it cannot verify them in the way the treaty says it must be able to.
So far, there had been no talks about prolonging or replacing it, despite its imminent expiry date.
The fact that great powers no longer see eye to eye on mid-range cruise missiles, also raises questions about the future of other arms treaties, like New START, says Lete.
“It removes an important trust building measure between Russia and the US, and increases risks for global security as a whole,” Lete told EURACTIV.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]