With the decision by Donald Trump to pull out of the contested Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, another important piece of the European security architecture collapses. While experts and policymakers are still engaged in the ongoing blame game, perhaps we should try to look into the not too distant future and forecast what the end of INF could mean for European and international security – spoiler alert: INF’s demise is bad news!
First of all, decision-makers in Europe and in the Kremlin should be well aware that the US withdrawal from INF and the continued deployment of the treaty-busting Novator 9M729 by Russia will likely trigger the development of new INF missiles, also in the United States. Just ask yourself: why should America constraint itself while Russia has a free hand? Once this insight starts to sink in, the deployment question comes up. European NATO allies should therefore ponder what options they have. Should they oppose new deployments from the very beginning; remain undecided/open; propose alternative military means that they would have to pay for themselves in the age of Trump? In any case, and I hope I am wrong with my prediction, Europe might experience another deployment debate and perhaps an extended period of missile buildups in both Russia and on NATO territory.
In order to avoid another full-fledged arms race and to provide for an off ramp down the road, NATO allies should kick off intellectual work on a future arms control offer to Russia – one that takes into account the political, military, and technological realities of the 21st century. If all else fails, perhaps not the worst option could be another dual track-like decision. At least, that way Washington would make sure to have deployment skeptical countries such as Germany on board. Whatever NATO does, making sure the alliance stays united should be the overarching goal.
Second, policy-makers in Moscow and Washington should be clear about the negative ramifications of the end of INF on strategic stability – aka, the future of the New START agreement. New START will expire in February 2021. So far, the White House did not heed calls to extend the treaty for another five years or to engage in deliberations about a follow-on framework. For various reasons, the collapse of INF could trigger the end of New START as well. Be it a general dissatisfaction with Russian treaty (non-)compliance in Washington, the arms control skepticism of Bolton et al., Russian allegations of U.S. noncompliance with New START; or the poor track record of U.S. Congress when it comes to new arms control agreements – New START is already under heavy pressure. Should the treaty wither away without a replacement, bilateral nuclear arms control between the two powers with the most nuclear warheads worldwide (by far!) would come to an end. Full circle, we’d be back at the early 1970s.
Third, the wider ripple effects of such an entire collapse of arms control would ultimately leave their marks on the global nuclear order, and in particular on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Already under pressure since a couple of years, the NPT has come under additional strain since a large number of non-nuclear signatories have put forward a treaty banning all nuclear weapons in 2017. Those Ban Treaty proponents would rightfully point to both Russia and America – violating their disarmament commitments under Article VI of the NPT – and ask a simple question: what value does the NPT have in a world where great powers are only acting according to their own definition of interest? What else is it that Moscow and Washington have to offer on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament? Not much right now, it seems.
Taken together, the effects of the end of the INF Treaty could be severe – for Europe and for the world. It is high time for all sides to get serious in finding a way out of the current crisis. It is not too late to rediscover the instruments of diplomacy and cooperative security. Expert groups such as the trilateral German-Russian-American “Deep Cuts Commission” have put forward a number of creative and viable proposals to solve the INF standoff. Calls to step back from the brink should be heeded before we enter the next nuclear arms race – one that might well be the last.