Why Europe needs to support the US-Russia INF Treaty

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (R) at the first Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1985. / [EPA/RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY]

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by the US and the Soviet Union over 30 years ago is on the verge of collapse and this poses an immediate threat to European security. European heads of states need to play a role to salvage the Treaty even if they are not formally involved in it, writes Lukas Trakimavičius.

Lukas Trakimavičius formerly worked at NATO. Currently, he is an independent Brussels-based security analyst. 

The United States withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has doubtlessly served as a major blow not only to arms control but also to transatlantic trust and security. However, Donald Trump’s strategic blunder should not detract Europeans from or cloud their judgment about other significant arms control regimes that are on the verge of collapse.

Russia’s reported violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 is a direct and immediate threat to European security. Failure to save the treaty might not only lead to an arms race, but also a missile crisis reminiscent of the Cold War days.

The INF Treaty is arguably one of the most successful arms control agreements of all time. Signed just over three decades ago by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it managed to eliminate an entire class of weapons of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.

As a result, both parties destroyed 2,692 missiles together with their launchers and greatly reduced the risk of miscalculation or war in Europe. The signatories also agreed not to possess, “produce, or flight-test” new missiles of the destroyed kind. It was a spectacular achievement.

However, the INF Treaty is now in great danger.

Back in July 2014, the US accused Russia of testing a prohibited ground-launched nuclear-capable cruise missile with a generally believed range of around 2,000 kilometres. This missile became known as the 9M729 by the Russians and the SSC-8 by NATO countries.

In March 2017, General Paul Selva, a senior US military official, stated that Moscow had secretly deployed the missile. Consequently, in December 2017, the US announced a series of sanctions against Russian companies that have been involved in the development of the SSC-8.

Initially, Russia flat-out denied US accusations, but in December 2017, it finally acknowledged the existence of the SSC-8. Yet it maintained that the missile‘s range did not breach the Treaty’s maximum threshold.

Also, Moscow stated that its new missile was test-launched at a test site from a fixed land-based launcher, which, again, was allowed under the stipulations of the Treaty.  However, no evidence was publicly released to support these claims.

While all this might seem as yet another diplomatic quarrel between the two largest nuclear powers, the reported deployment of the SSC-8 should be alarming for Europeans for at least two reasons.

First, the SSC-8 significantly improves Russia’s military posture vis-à-vis Europe and provides it with a solid first strike capability. If launched from Kaliningrad, it can reach deep into European territory, obliterate most of NATO’s military infrastructure and potentially ravage cities as remote as Berlin, London, Paris and Rome.

The SSC-8 also poses a serious threat because it is easily transportable, likely very fast and can blend in with other existing Russian missile systems. Therefore, it would be difficult for anyone to notice its launch, let alone to mount effective defences.

Furthermore, given its capacity, the SSC-8 might resurrect the nuclear blackmail debate in Europe. Back in the late 1970s, the Euromissile crisis was directly caused by the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 missile.

The theory went that if Moscow were to launch a pre-emptive strike against a continental NATO member state, it could subsequently threaten Washington with a strategic nuclear strike and potentially prevent it from sending reinforcements to Europe.

Back then the question was if the US would be willing to sacrifice New York for Bonn, but now it could be paraphrased to whether the US would be willing to sacrifice Washington for Vilnius.

Second, the SSC-8 might also lead to political problems within NATO. As part of a strategy to coax Moscow back into compliance with the INF Treaty, in January 2018, Washington announced it would start research on developing a new “road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile system,” that would provide an answer to the Russian SSC-8.

This new missile system would have a range of “between 500 to 5,500 kilometres” and, if developed, would obviously violate the INF Treaty.

However, the problem is that the development of such a missile would not only mark the death of the INF Treaty but would likely cause unease within some NATO countries. When, in response to the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 missile, European Allies agreed to host American Pershing II and BGM-109G Gryphon missiles on their soil, it had a deeply polarising effect in countries where the missiles were to be deployed.

In case we were to see a modern replay of the Euromissile crisis, we would likely witness similar tensions, which could weaken both transatlantic and European unity.

Fortunately, all of this can be avoided.

Although Russia and the US are the main signatories of the INF Treaty and only they can resolve the outstanding compliance issues, European heads of states can and should play a role in salvaging the Treaty.

In fact, it is astonishing that up to the present day European capitals have virtually been silent about the reported violation of the Treaty. After all, the SSC-8 threatens Europeans and not Americans.

European leaders should make it publicly and unambiguously clear that they value the INF Treaty as much as the Americans do and urge Moscow to address Washington’s complaints. The US and Russia could then try and resolve their disagreements on a technical level.

In the unlikely event that Russia was right and its missile has not violated the Treaty, then we obviously would have nothing to fear. Alternatively, if a Treaty-violating missile was to be found, it would have to be verifiably destroyed and inspections for compliance purposes would have to be implemented.

While it is easy to see why following Trump’s withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal some European leaders might be reluctant to work on arms control matters in which they are not formally involved, they should still keep in mind that it is the security of Europeans that is ultimately at stake.

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