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Commentary | 11 July 2018

Two summits that can change the fate of the INF Treaty

At the ongoing NATO Brussels summit and the Trump-Putin meeting following right after, there will be one issue that can make all the difference between a success and failure: the ability to resolve the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) crisis.

The landmark deal removed an entire category of ground-launched weapons with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, both conventional and nuclear, from Europe. The crisis arises from mutual allegations on non-compliance. The United States accuses Russia of testing and deploying cruise missiles banned by the deal. Moscow repeatedly denies these allegations. It also formulates counter-accusations of US non-compliance, including those concerning US missile defence interceptor launchers in Europe.

Even though Washington and Russia agreed to “work to preserve and strengthen” the treaty at the latest meeting of a commission tasked at resolving questions of compliance in December 2017, the future of the accord is in serious doubt. The ongoing NATO Brussels summit and the subsequent Trump-Putin meeting, if handled correctly, can change the fate of the treaty and pave the way for future arms control agreements.

Europe—partner in response. Although the deal is bilateral in nature, Washington expects its NATO allies to support a common solution to bring Russia back to compliance. At a top-level meeting in Brussels, U.S. defence chief James Mattis set the ongoing NATO summit in July 2018 as a deadline for the Europeans to make up their minds.

The stakes are high for Europe as the arms pact is a key pillar of European—not American—security. If the INF collapses, Russia could deploy an unlimited number of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that would mainly threaten all of European territory. Such development would further increase the potential for miscalculation and escalation in the already tense relation with Moscow.

Keeping the INF in limbo is not viable in the long term either—at least not for US domestic and foreign policy. And the US administration already eyes solutions which are not only highly divisive inside the Alliance, but could potentially further destabilise European security.

Additionally, ambiguity around the INF is destructive of trust in traditional arms control. It is highly unlikely to negotiate future agreements with the INF remaining unsolved. At the same time, by having the largest nuclear weapon arsenals, U.S. and Russia are key in pushing the global nuclear disarmament agenda forward. As such, there is no way around the INF.

Put Russia to a diplomatic test. In the communiqué, NATO should brake the stalemate and unanimously support the United States offering transparency measures on its ballistic missile defence system in Europe, provided Russia moves on its missile. Being the first to make an offer would prove the sincerity of one’s conviction that it was INF-compliant and that the other side was not. This would give moral and negotiating high ground, build pressure on the other side for transparency, and strengthen the credibility of its position in Europe. As technical measures to refute bilateral allegations are on the table and are known to both concerned parties, it is solely a matter of political good will in Washington and Moscow to resolve their compliance concerns.

Refuse implausible military solutions. European allies should decline those US proposals of military coercion against Russia that have little potential to plausibly bring the Kremlin back to compliance.

The US Defence Department’s plans to review development options for a tit-for-tat ground-launched intermediate-range missile system and to reintroduce of nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles simply lack credibility.

While the Donald Trump administration still did not launch its own strategy on missile defence, Congress tasked the Pentagon to direct additional missile defence capabilities towards Russia. This, however, would be problematic to those European NATO allies which agreed to a missile defence system under the condition that it will be specifically not pointed to Russia.

And since Moscow believes that by fielding ballistic missile defence and offensive capabilities in Europe and East Asia, Washington wants to increase its superiority over Russia, additional military measures introduced by the U.S. would probably fuel Moscow’s sense of being under siege and thus lead to a Russian military counter-reaction.

Be ready to threaten with credible sticks. This is not to say that military measures should not be pursued at all. NATO is currently waging options to strengthen the credibility of US extended nuclear deterrence for Europe and further improve its conventional offensive response capabilities. These measures make sense for wider deterrence purposes and signal seriousness of intent. And if Russia does not take the transparency bite, NATO should be ready to implement some of them. Yet it needs to be clear to all Europeans that these means would not defend Europe from non-compliant Russian cruise missiles.

Helsinki Summit. Right after the NATO Summit, President Donald Trump will meet with  President Vladimir Putin on a one on one talk in Helsinki. The two leaders will discuss US-Russian relations and a range of national security issues. President Trump wants to determine whether Russia is willing to make progress in the bilateral relationship. INF could be the ultimate test of Russian seriousness and sincerity.

While it would be profoundly unwise and undesirable to link extension of the New START Treaty to the fate of the INF, President Trump should nevertheless privately, and supported with the NATO communiqué, undertake a “deal”. If Moscow could satisfy US concerns about the alleged missile by–say–the end of 2018, then President Trump would not further delay over the New START extension.

If successful, President Trump could add the INF as another peace trophy to his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Putin would reopen the door to stabilise relations with the West, while Europeans could at least check one issue out of their concern list.

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 challenges.