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Commentary | 7 November 2018

The INF Crisis and Europe: We need facts, not hysteria

Image of Franklin C. Miller

Franklin C. Miller |Principal, Scowcroft Group and former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush

INF Nuclear Security Russia-West Relations United States Global Security

The announcement by the US Administration that the United States would be withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty because of Russian cheating has set off a variety of anxious messages from Allies and gratuitous threats from Mr Putin.

The EU issued a statement which included the following:

“The United States and the Russian Federation need to remain engaged in constructive dialogue to preserve the INF Treaty and ensure its full and verifiable implementation which is crucial for Europe’s and global security.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, has called the US decision “regrettable,” stating that the INF treaty was “an important pillar of our European security architecture”, that the US move to withdraw “raises difficult questions for us and Europe” and that Germany would be urging Washington to “consider the possible consequences” of its decision. He also noted that Germany has repeatedly urged Moscow to “clear up the serious allegations of breaching the INF treaty, which Russia has so far not done.”

For his part, Russian president Vladimir Putin warned that any European countries hosting US missiles would be at risk: “European countries that agree to this – if things come to this – should understand that they will be subjecting their own territory to the threat of a possible retaliatory strike.” Russia’s response would be “very quick and effective”.

All of this was predictable. And it encapsulates what is wrong with the whole INF – and indeed nuclear weapons debate in Europe.

Calls for the United States to continue to engage in a constructive dialogue with Russia on this issue bring to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. The United States has been raising the Russian violation of the INF Treaty with Moscow since 2014. During that period, Russia completed design of the treaty-busting SSC-8 cruise missile, and moved to produce, test, and deploy the system. Multiple SSC-8 battalions are in the field, are operational and equipped with nuclear weapons.   Continued entreaties to the Kremlin to make Europe safer will only result in additional Russian deployments while Moscow continues to reject that it has violated, let alone eviscerated, the treaty. (For those with long memories, the Kremlin’s behaviour mirrors almost exactly the situation of the late 1970s/early 1980s when NATO appealed to the USSR to halt deployments of the Soviet SS-20 IRBM, only to have Moscow ramp up placing SS-20s in the field.  The halt in SS-20 deployments and their eventual elimination thanks to the INF Treaty only occurred as a direct result of NATO’s counter-deployment of Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles.)

And how can the INF Treaty be considered “an important pillar of our European security architecture” when Russia is exploiting it to place illegal systems in the field while NATO continues to believe itself bound by the Treaty’s strictures? To believe the INF Treaty remains in force is risible: Russia’s continued deployment of SSC-8s has rendered it null and void. It only remains for the West to acknowledge this, which the US Administration’s announced decision has done.

But Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is only one element of Russia’s growing nuclear threat to NATO Europe, a threat which was supposed to be reduced dramatically by the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991/92. Under those initiatives, which were politically (not legally) binding, NATO and the USSR/Russia pledged to slash their arsenal of short-range nuclear weapons. The US/NATO cut its arsenal by 90%. Russia did not. Of particular importance, both sides agreed to eliminate all of their ground-launched short-range nuclear weapons. The United States accomplished this goal promptly. Although the Russian government claims it has adhered to the Initiatives, it has become evident that the Russian Army still retains nuclear artillery and has deployed for many years a relatively new short-range ballistic missile, the SS-26, which has nuclear capability. As a result, Russia’s deployed stockpile of short-range nuclear weapons is now ten times larger than NATO’s. Ironically, this calls to mind the classic title of a cold war era Soviet propaganda document:  “Whence the Threat to Peace?”

Russian cheating on its nuclear arms control commitments must be confronted – especially by those who are threatened by the Russian weapons. There is no excuse for European NATO members to seek “moral equivalence” by casting aspersions on both the United States and Russia for increasing the nuclear threat. Russia alone bears that burden. Our allies might take to heart the message President John Kennedy sent to British philosopher Bertrand Russell when the latter accused the United States of creating a crisis over Krushchev’s deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba: “I think your attention might well be directed to the burglars rather than to those who caught the burglars”.

And now to Mr Putin’s lies and intimidation. Russia’s malevolent behaviour towards NATO over the past ten years has been well-documented. Vladimir Putin and his senior officials have long indulged in inflammatory rhetoric unheard since the era of Nikita Khrushchev, statements in which Russia threatens to conduct nuclear strikes against (or to put on Russia’s nuclear target list) Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark. Russian generals have identified the US and NATO as their primary enemy. Russian bombers and fighters routinely penetrate Allied air defence zones and Russian aircraft and naval ships routinely manoeuvre in an extremely unsafe manner in close proximity to NATO assets. Russian military exercises showcase assaults against NATO, and include nuclear strikes. All of this is intended to intimidate and blackmail NATO governments and publics. Mr Putin’s latest intimation that he would add countries to his target list belies the reality that Russian nuclear forces have been targeting NATO for decades.  The existing short-range forces do so today, as do Russian naval and air tactical nuclear systems.  The growing number of newly deployed SSC-8s do so as well.  Further, to suggest that should NATO decide to respond to the SSC-8 deployments, Russia would have to deploy a countervailing capability is to reach a new level of hypocrisy, even for Vladimir Putin.

What, then, should NATO nations and even the non-NATO members of the EU do about this?

First, they should recognize that  two US administrations have been negotiating with Moscow about the SSC-8’s violation with the only result being the system’s operational deployment . The blame for the INF Treaty’s demise rests squarely and solely with the Kremlin.

Second, they should remember that the US extension of its nuclear umbrella over NATO – thereby putting the US homeland directly at risk – is a selfless act designed to protect our allies from Russian coercion, blackmail or attack. A quick look at the situation in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, the Crimea, Donbass, and Trans-Dniester provides evidence of what happens when Russia confronts weaker nations who lack protection.

Third, working with the United States, the rest of NATO should agree upon a counter to the SSC-8 which may not need to be nuclear-capable, and which almost certainly would not be based in Europe. The history of the past many decades makes clear that the Kremlin, whether the leadership is Soviet or post-Soviet, will only agree to negotiate and abide by arms control agreements if there is a Western system whose deployment Moscow seeks to block or constrain.

Finally, they should be ever mindful of Russian threats and activities which have occurred for over a decade and which continue today. Russia has not been a good neighbour. Europeans’ concerns and ire should be directed at the former KGB official who now directs all aspects of Moscow’s malign behaviour towards the West, rather than at the United States.

The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.