By Danny Chahbouni. Danny studies History and Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg.
The year 2014 seems to be going down in history as “the return of history to Europe”. Russian troops annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and a Russian-backed Hybrid War is still going on in the eastern parts of the country. While western nations struggle to find an adequate answer to this unbelievable violation of international law, things could get far worse. Is Vladimir Putin willing to ban the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and challenge the unprepared West in the sensitive area of nuclear weapons?
A landmark treaty
The 1987 signed agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War arms race and was simultaneously an expression of a new era in East-West-relations. Since the massive deployment of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) in the late 1970s, IRBMs had been hot-button issues for western governments. In fact, the USSR had challenged NATO’s superiority in the field of INFs by the deployment of this new class of missiles. The West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was the first NATO leader who warned, that the stability in Europe might be threatened by the appearance of the SS-20. After the NATO Double-Track Decision and the inconclusive arms reduction talks in Geneva, Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and Ground Launched Cruised Missiles (GLCM) were stationed in West Germany, Great Britain and Italy.
In 1986 arms reduction talks resumed, but the breakthrough was reached during the Reykjavik Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The talks were benefited by Chancellor Kohl’s decision to retire the older Pershing IA. These missiles were operated by the Bundesluftwaffe and would have been equipped with American W50 thermonuclear warheads as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing.
On December 8, 1987, the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was finally signed in Washington. The treaty regulated which kind of missiles and delivery vehicles were to be banned (Art. II and III) and created a three-year period to implement these measures.
- Each Party shall eliminate all its intermediate-range missiles and launchers of such missiles, and all support structures and support equipment of the categories listed in the Memorandum of Understanding associated with such missiles and launchers, so that no later than three years after entry into force of this Treaty and thereafter no such missiles, launchers, support structures or support equipment shall be possessed by either Party.
By 1991 it seemed that both parties had fulfilled their obligations and abandoned a whole class of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union and the United States collectively dismantled 2’692 missiles, formerly aimed at each other.
A new strategic environment
During the 1990s and early 2000s all issues considering nuclear weapons and arms control were more or less focused on non-proliferation measures and the nuclear programs of countries like North Korea and Iran. While America worked on it’s missile defense capabilities, nuclear arms weren’t an essential topic for Europeans at all, exempt some political initiatives to remove the remaining tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from German soil.
The first public announcement that Russia was no longer comfortable with the permanent ban of INFs had been made in early 2005 by Russian officials. Internationally this was seen as a direct reaction to the American withdrawal out of the much older Anti-Ballistic-Missile-Treaty (ABM) in 2002. Two years later, in early 2007, chief of the Russian general staff, Yuri Baluyevsky gave a statement, saying that compliance with the INF-Treaty would mostly depend on American plans to build missile defense sites in Central European countries. Later that year, Putin told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during their visit in Moscow, that the treaty should be expanded upon other countries. During the debate over the stationing of missile defense sites in Central Europe, Russian Federation’s Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF) implemented an improved Version of the Topol-M ICBM (RS-24 equipped with MIRV / SS-27 Mod 2). The missile, according to Russian sources, is capable of counter-measures to protect the ICBM against interceptor-missiles.
Deterrence or Intimidation?
In 2009 Barack Obama abandoned the plans to deploy interceptor-missiles in Poland, Romania and other Central European countries. While New Start was negotiated and ratified in 2010, Russia continued to develop new missiles, also systems which were explicitly forbidden by the 1987 INF-Treaty. According to a New York Times report of January 2014 SRF test fired an ICBM which can be subsumed both as INF or long-range-missile and a ground launched cruise missile.
The ICBM mentioned above appears to be the two-stage RS-26, which is still shrouded in mystery. In fact the use of ICBMs in medium ranges is not a violation of the treaty at all. Entirely different and indeed a serious violation would be the test of a ground launched cruise missile. The system tested seems to be the R-500, a cruise missile launched from the well known Iskander-System. The cruise missile itself seems to be derived from the Russian Naval Force’s 3M-14 Klub cruise missile, but with a longer range than 300 Km. In terms of Article II, 6 of the treaty, R-500 would be counted as a short-range missile. According to Article V the possession of this systems is not permitted.
Regardless of the technical details, the questions what the aim of the Russian rearmament could be arises. Relating to an IISS-Blog article, there are indications that RS-26 missiles might be deployed to 29th Guards Missile Division in Irkutsk. The deployment of these missiles to Siberia could be seen as deterrence against China’s growing arsenal of medium-range systems. This estimate is supported by earlier statements of Putin and other Russian officials, who have argued for an expansion of the INF-Treaty. Despite these legitimate Russian interests, a unilateral withdrawal out of the treaty would be a highly problematic step.
Against the backdrop of Obama’s declared pivot to East Asia, the current crisis in Ukraine, and Russian Forces, exercising the first use of nuclear weapons against NATO during the maneuver-series “Zapad”, it is obvious that any violation of the INF-Treaty must be seen as a serious intimidation for European security and stability.
The conclusion for Europe?
Basically the INF-Treaty is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, but a suspension could have immense implications on European security. Based on information provided by an unclassified U.S. State Department compliance report, the whole dimension of the incident is still not clear. This situation has created a controversy, whether Russia violated the treaty and how the U.S. should react to such an incident. Remain in strict compliance or retaliate by deployment of new INFs?
Although Europeans would be mostly affected, the issue is hardly publicly present, despite some minor news reports. Due to the fact, that a new Nachrüstung is neither an economical nor a political option for NATO-Countries, the best (and maybe the only) way for Europeans would be urging the United States for stronger arms-control efforts and increased on-site inspections. In general, the whole matter is an obvious sign, that European security is still strongly interdependent with the United States. The United States, for example, is still the only nuclear power in NATO, that provides warheads for NATO’s nuclear sharing. Therefore strong ties between Europe and the U.S., accompanied by an even stronger European commitment to defend its values and interests, might be the best way to deter Russian geopolitical desires in its neighboring NATO-Countries.