NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at the 2019 Brussels Forum.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at the 2019 Brussels Forum. German Marshall Fund

With Treaty Set to Expire, NATO Scrambles to Counter Russian Missile Threat

A "dangerous and entirely avoidable reality" is just five weeks away.

BRUSSELS — On Aug. 2, the nuclear weapons treaty that may have saved Europe, if not the world, from annihilation for 30 years will dissolve into history. We have no clue how NATO will continue to keep Europe safe after Aug. 3. 

The countdown clock began in February. One week after Russia first publicly displayed its nuclear-capable SSC-8 ground-based cruise missile, the Trump administration declared that because Russia had for years violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, in part by developing and fielding the SSC-8, the treaty was in fact dead. The U.S. “suspended” its compliance with INF immediately; Trump gave Moscow six months to get back in line.

That clock is almost up. Then what? 

Trump officials say this is all Moscow’s doing, and that trashing the treaty frees the U.S. to develop and field badly needed matching missile capabilities to deter Russia, and potentially China. 

“This is a dangerous and entirely avoidable reality, but Russia chose it by developing, manufacturing and deploying the SSC-8 missile,” said Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday, at this week’s regularly scheduled meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels. “This missile is proof-positive that Russia has been noncompliant with the INF Treaty for several years, and prudence now requires our alliance to take steps to counter this new capability.”

Esper added that the U.S. and NATO are working to find a way to stop the SSC-8 — short of obviously problematic airstrikes on their launchers.

Moscow agrees — at least insofar as the INF’s zombie status. Russian officials say the West’s own offensive capabilities long ago made relics of INF and other treaties, and that Russia’s missiles are an appropriate defense. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Wednesday that Russia would take “countervailing military measures” against whatever NATO decides.

Arms control advocates say this is all Trump’s doing, and foisting an artificial deadline on Moscow only assures they will speed more missiles into place before the West is ready to ward them off. Moreover, they say, it tells China, Iran, and other regimes that they are free to develop their own dangerous intermediate-range missiles. In short, they argue, it will start an arms race

NATO officials are still trying against hope to save the treaty.  

Related: Save This One Piece of the INF Treaty

Related: Poll: Americans Want To Stay In Nuclear Arms Control Agreements

“Our main focus now is to try and bring Russia back into compliance,” said NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, said in an on-stage interview with this reporter at the Brussels Forum, an annual policy conference convened by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. (Defense One is a media partner of the event.) 

“I admit the likelihood of that happening is actually going down every day,” Stoltenberg said. “I think this treaty is so important we have an obligation to try and save the treaty...The INF Treaty is not just one arms control treaty;  it’s a cornerstone, landmark treaty.” 

Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, recalled growing up in a Europe threatened by mid-range cruise and Pershing missiles. “I actually demonstrated against all of them,” he said. “That’s why it was such a great achievement when we got the INF Treaty. Because the INF Treaty didn’t only reduce the number of missiles, it actually banned all of them. So for decades there has been zero land-based, intermediate-range weapons systems in Europe.”

But all of that is history. 

Related: The INF Treaty Is Doomed. We Need a New Arms-Control Framework

This week, Stoltenberg and NATO ministers pledged that if Russia doesn’t comply, “we will respond.” The alliance leader listed possible options, including more military exercises, increased missile defenses, new arms control agreements where possible (some want the U.S. and Russia to at least keep the Treaty’s ban on ballistic missiles), and “conventional” response options. 

Stoltenberg declined to say whether NATO members were considering preemptive strikes on SSC-8 sites. 

“It’s not that we will have a conflict on the 3rd of August,” he said. 

But when the treaty expires, the gloves come off. Stoltenberg pointed to U.S. research and development into a similar intermediate-range missile capability which, he conceded, “would violate the treaty if it was developed and deployed before the treaty expires.” 

“We have not started to do anything which is in violation of the treaty, but we have started to prepare for a world without the treaty so we can react, respond — but we will respond in a defensive, measured way because we are not seeking conflict. Our aim is still to reduce tensions, but at the same time maintain credible deterrence also, in a world with more Russain missiles and without the INF Treaty.” 

In fact, the U.S. has been working on post INF-Treaty missiles for some time. One such is the U.S. Army’s Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, intended to be operational in four years. “Abrogating the treaty also opens the possibility of building even longer-ranged ‘strategic fires’ such as rocket-boosted artillery shells and ground-launched hypersonic missiles, both of which could hit targets beyond 1,000 miles,” wrote Technology Editor Patrick Tucker, adding that the Pentagon may have difficulty finding Euroepan countries to host them.

On July 5, the NATO-Russia council will meet again, likely the last such meeting before the deadline and a new world begins for Europeans living within range of nearly unstoppable nuclear-tipped missiles at Vladimir Putin’s fingertips. 

“Make no mistake: The U.S. will remain in compliance with the INF Treaty until its very last minute,” Esper said in Brussels, but “should Moscow choose to walk away from the treaty, we and our allies will move forward, and we will meet the future together. We will invest and we will adapt and our alliance has done — as our alliance has done so many times in the past.”

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