Barring an 11th-hour diplomatic breakthrough that resolves Russian and U.S. concerns about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, new arms control arrangements will be needed to avert a dangerous and costly new missile race in Europe.
On Feb. 2, both sides announced that they will suspend their obligations under the three-decade-old treaty, and will likely withdraw on August 2. This will scuttle the agreement that led to the verifiable elimination of 2,692 Soviet and U.S. missiles, helped end the Cold War, and paved the way to slash bloated strategic nuclear arsenals. Already, each side is accelerating their pursuit of new intermediate-range, ground-based missiles in Europe and beyond.
Russia has already deployed four battalions of its INF-noncompliant 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles and could soon deploy more. Last week, the Kremlin said it would modify the naval Kalibr cruise missile for use by ground forces by next year. Russia’s under-development RS-26 ICBM could also be modified to fly at intermediate ranges.
Trump administration officials claim they do not have any plans right now for the deployment of nuclear missiles in Europe, but they clearly do intend to try to deploy conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile systems in Europe.
Next month, the administration’s Defense Department budget request will likely include additional funding for research and development on weapons such as a variant of the Navy’s Tomahawk sea-based cruise missile and an intermediate-range version of the short-range Army Tactical Missile System.
Russia would see such any deployment of such missiles, whether with conventional or nuclear warheads, as a direct threat to its leadership and command-and-control centers — and NATO’s eastward expansion allows these weapons to be placed on the Russian doorstep. Russia will respond in kind.
If both sides begin to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles, our European allies will be less secure and the risk of a military incident or miscommunication leading to a full-scale war with Russia will increase.
Unfortunately, neither the Trump administration, nor NATO, have put forward a realistic plan to block the Russians from just such a build-up. Instead, President Donald Trump, along with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, have been issuing vague statements expressing an openness to expanding the INF Treaty to China and other states that possess intermediate-range missiles.
This idea gained no traction when Washington and Moscow formally proposed it in 2007; there is no chance Beijing would sign on today. While efforts to engage China in a broader nuclear risk reduction and disarmament dialogue are useful, achieving progress of any kind is long-term proposition, and the INF Treaty—which was specifically designed to deal with U.S.-Soviet missiles in Europe—is not the right template. Joining the INF Treaty would mean that China would have to eliminate 95 percent of its missile arsenal, while leaving intact the formidable U.S. air- and sea-based strike forces and sea-based missile interceptors. Beijing is not going to agree to what it would consider to be unilateral disarmament.
With the INF Treaty’s days numbered, a new and more serious arms control initiative is needed – and it should be focused on the near-term problem on how Washington and Moscow can avert a new Euromissile race that would undermine the security our NATO allies.
One option would be for NATO to declare, as a bloc, that no alliance members will field any INF Treaty-prohibited missiles or any equivalent new nuclear capabilities in Europe so long as Russia does not deploy treaty-prohibited systems where they could hit NATO territory. This would require Russia to move at least some currently deployed 9M729 missiles. As the United States and Russia dispute the range of that missile; perhaps they could agree to bar deployments west of the Ural mountains.
The U.S. and Russian presidents could agree to this “no-first INF missile deployment plan” through an executive agreement that would be verified through national technical means of intelligence. Russia could be expected to insist upon additional confidence-building measures to ensure that the United States would not place offensive missiles in the Mk 41 missile-interceptor launchers now deployed in Romania as part of the Aegis Ashore system and, soon, in Poland. (Russian officials have long complained to their U.S. counterparts about the missile-defense batteries’ dual capabilities.)
A no-first-deployment agreement would also mean forgoing the Trump administration’s plans for new ground-launched, INF Treaty-prohibited missiles to counter Russia. This would be no loss: the air- and sea-launched missiles in U.S. and NATO arsenals mean there is no military need for such weapons.
Key allies would likely view this as the best post-INF alternative. Germany has already declared its opposition to stationing new intermediate-range missiles in Europe. And Moscow may already be open to a new agreement along these lines. On Feb. 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that “Russia will only deploy new missiles if United States does.” Putin’s pledge is only credible if he also agrees to remove the 9M729 missiles from locations that put NATO territory in their range.
Another possible approach would be to negotiate a new agreement that verifiably prohibits ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic or cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads. Such an approach would require additional declarations and regular on-site inspections of any ground-launched, INF Treaty-range systems.
As a recent United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research study explains, the sophisticated verification procedures and technologies already in place under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, can be applied with almost no modification to verify the absence of nuclear warheads deployed on shorter-range missiles. This formula would reduce the most serious threats that could be posed by redeployment of ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in the European theater, but would not prohibit either side from deploying large numbers of conventionally-armed missiles, and therefore, it may not be deemed to be an adequate solution for either side. Given that there is no buffer zone between the NATO’s eastern flank and Russia, any intermediate-range missiles deployed along the frontier areas would have very short flight times to target, which could increase the temptation of one or the other side to launch first in a crisis.
To be of lasting value, a nonnuclear-armed intermediate range missile framework would require that Moscow and Washington agree to extend New START by five years. New START is now scheduled to expire in 2021 and talks on extension have not yet begun.
Whether the Trump administration has the interest or diplomatic bandwidth to pursue post-INF missile limitation agreements for Europe is not clear. But leading NATO states most affected by the termination of INF, including Germany can and should, in coordination with the United States, develop such and engage in serious talks with Russia. The time do so is now, before it is too late.