The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, sanctioned in early February by the US and Russia’s announcement that they will suspend their obligations under the pact, has expectedly raised doubts and fears for the future of European security. Besides the customary expressions of regret delivered by world leaders and nuclear experts, it is still not completely clear what the end of the Cold War agreement is really about, and what it will mean for Europe. It might well represent a new stepping stone on the path to Europe’s irrelevance.
The Pact, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated more than 2500 missiles, and banned for the United States and Soviet Union (now Russia) the possession, testing and deployment of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. For 15 years, the INF Treaty represented an undisputed pillar of the European security environment. In the 2000s, however, its legitimacy started to be questioned by Russia, in retaliation to the 2002 Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from another Cold War agreement, the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limited the deployment of anti-ballistic systems by Russia and the United States. In the following years, this led to the development of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, which includes two ground-based sites in Romania and Poland. According to Moscow, offensive missiles could easily be deployed on the Aegis launchers. Moscow has used this alleged circumvention of the INF Treaty to justify its own violations, that have materialized with the deployment of the intermediate-range SSC-X-8 cruises, which could ostensibly allow Russia to fight a limited war. Since 2014 the US government has repeatedly denounced Russia’s noncompliance with the Treaty. In the absence of mutual verifications, Moscow has rebuked these allegations, challenging the credibility of US classified intelligence evidences. This barrage of mutual accusations continued until February, when the US government confirmed its decision (announced in October 2017) to suspend the Treaty and open a six-month withdrawal period provided by the agreement.
In the meanwhile, the Europeans have played a very limited role, and do not seem willing, or able, to put forward their own independent approach. NATO has officially endorsed the US position toward Russian violations, while the European Union has released a series of rather timid statements on the importance of preserving arms control agreements. The EU’s reluctance to adopt a bolder stance is mirrored by the lack of reactions from its members. For the most part, European national governments have remained silent in front of the demise of the INF Treaty. Germany and Poland have recently been more vocal, but the two countries appear to be at odds with each other on the issue. The German government seems so far intentioned to explore every possibility to keep the agreement alive, as its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Heiko Maas declared in October last year. It is still unclear if Germany is able to undertake any practical steps to implement its position. In early February, Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested that the six-month withdrawal period, which will expire in August, 2019 should be used to open a new round of negotiations involving not only Russia and the United States, but also China. The Chancellor’s initiative, however, has not so far led to any concrete result. The Polish government, on the other hand, seems to be already in a post-INF mindset. It is asking for a reinforcement of NATO on its territory to contain Moscow’s appetites toward its immediate neighbors, and to counter Russian attempts to turn an alleged nuclear advantage into political prominence in Europe. From the German perspective, a bolder NATO presence might entail additional retaliations from Russia, as well as an unwelcomed military build-up in Europe, which would be badly received by the public. This position is mirrored by other European countries, like Italy, that are less affected by proximity with Russia. Their governments will be reluctant to add supplementary burden to their already strained finances to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. In this scenario, it seems unlikely that the Europeans will be eager to compose their differences around a bold, shared EU position. Once more, Europe might decide to reluctantly follow the US lead inside NATO rather than face a showdown inside the European Union, confront unimpressed public opinions, and increase its defense budgets.
This time, however, inaction could leave Europe in a very problematic situation. Does a US lead inside NATO really exist on this matter? Do Washington’s motives and expectations behind the demise of the INF Treaty take into consideration European interests? These questions have no clear answers. Many observers have noted that Trump’s attitude toward the INF Treaty might be a consequence of his administration’s intention to free the United States from an apparently outdated agreement that is limiting US capacity to respond to a new threat – the development of a Chinese intermediate-range nuclear force. China is, in fact, not part of the INF Treaty and it is not limited by it. This would confirm a trend that the United States inaugurated with the abandonment of the ABM treaty. At the time, the US administration explained that the obsolete Cold War pact represented a meaningless limit to the development of missile defense systems, in a world threatened by nuclear weapons that were in the hands of multiple rogue states. Others believe that the INF Treaty is just another victim of Trump Administration’s intention to unleash the United States from international constraints. In both cases, a passive European approach cannot exert any influence against security and foreign policy interests that the current US government considers as completely legitimate. Europe has, after all, lost the implicit leverage that it possessed during the Cold War when Soviet predominance on the continent was not acceptable for the United States.
What are the options for the Europeans? Refurbishing the ground-based NATO nuclear arsenal is a frightening, hideous and, in the long run, pointless solution. It is also highly unlikely that it will happen, and not real plans in that direction have surfaced. Some observers argue that the Europeans can rely on the US intercontinental and NATO sea-launched nuclear forces as credible deterrent. One of their worst Cold War nightmares would then become a reality, as the Europeans would not have any control on Washington’s intention to fight, or not fight, a limited nuclear war with Russia. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review also indicates that the United States intends to respond to Russia’s new challenges primarily with the deployment of a new generation of sea (submarine) launched cruise missiles that will provide “a needed non-strategic regional presence, an assured response capability, and an INF-Treaty compliant response to Russia’s continuing Treaty violation”. The SLCM “will not require or rely on host nation support”. The European governments might end up not having any say on the deployment and employment of the new missiles. This does not imply that a US-led NATO will not represent in the future the main deterrent against Russia’s real or perceived nuclear threats. However, to maintain some grade of control on their security, the Europeans should craft their own response to the demise of the INF Treaty.
The end of the INF regime will allow Moscow to be virtually free of any constraints to develop and deploy new intermediate-range nuclear forces. The United States could also have its own motives in leaving the pact. The Treaty is, therefore, primarily a European interest. Europe could make its voice heard with a bold and joint diplomatic initiative toward Russia and the United States to start a new round of negotiations. The European Union has, after all, proved capable of such moves in the case of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. The INF Treaty represents a bigger and more difficult challenge than the JCPOA, but Europe should at least try to test its diplomatic capabilities. In the long-run, this might encourage the Europeans to embark on a much-needed reflection on the instruments that Europe should develop to effectively pursue its political and security goals.
Giordana Pulcini is Adjunct Professor, History of Transatlantic Relations, Department of Political Science, Roma The University, Rome, Italy.