When it was ratified in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated a category of weapons that was a major threat to Europe. One must remember how much of a step forward this event was during the Cold War.
In the early 1980s, Europe was vulnerable to military escalations due to tension between NATO and countries of the Warsaw Pact, a collective defense treaty signed by the Soviet Union and most of the other Eastern Bloc states in 1955. Several crises occurred during the Cold War but, for Europe, the 1970s and 1980s was a significant moment. For instance, the Able Archer exercise in 1983 — which saw NATO forces conduct a full-scale simulated release of nuclear weapons — resulted in the forces of the Warsaw Pact being ready to launch an actual assault as they thought the drill was the first phase of an offensive, with Germany as the battlefield.
To support the expected battle, both the Soviet Union and the United States deployed ground-launched missiles (SS20 vs Pershing II) with nuclear heads on German soil, which resulted in people demonstrating against a potential Armageddon. Known as the Euromissile crisis, the situation came to an end due to US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The Americans and the Soviets agreed to destroy ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that could travel between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. As it was accompanied by intrusive verification procedures, the INF Treaty was highly effective, with a total of 2,692 short and intermediate-range missiles and 149 sites destroyed by 1991.
Today, things have dramatically changed, and the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the INF is by no means a surprise, nor is Moscow’s in doing the same. Tensions initially rose in the early 2000s when the US withdrew unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was seen by President George W. Bush as a Cold War relic. The demise of this treaty was met largely with silence, especially at a time where US-Russia relations were warming up. It was also a moment when the NATO-Russia Council was established, advancing the relationship between the alliance and the Kremlin.
Yet the issue of nuclear warheads and missiles — rebranded under the concept of missile defense — resurfaced in the follow-up to the 2010 Lisbon Treaty. NATO allies had called for a comprehensive ballistic missile defense architecture since the Bucharest Summit of 2008. What was at stake was the protection of NATO members against missiles that could be fired from rogue states, with Iran seen as a potential threat.
In 2009, the Obama administration replaced an earlier missile defense system with the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which was part of a US contribution to NATO. This was meant to rebuild cohesion with the Europeans after a decade of engagement in Afghanistan, which had led to operational fatigue. Missile defense was perceived as a way of strengthening ties between the allies and helping maintain the commitment to collective defense, a fundamental principle of NATO.
At the Chicago Summit of 2012, the first steps and technical developments to implement the ballistic missile defense (BMD) system were announced. This underlined the ability “to defend the populations, territory and forces across southern NATO Europe against a ballistic missile attack.” Russia was not pleased. Despite official NATO speeches stating that the latest shield was not directed against Russia, the BMD was a fierce point of contention.
In 2014, the situation worsened after Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea and the hybrid warfare campaign waged in Eastern Ukraine. At the Wales Summit in September of the same year, NATO condemned Russia’s aggressive actions and took a series of measures. This included the decision to freeze every practical element of cooperation between NATO and Russia if Moscow continued to break international law.
In 2015 and throughout 2016, Russia tested and deployed its ground-based missile called Iskander-M (NATO codename, SS-26 Stone) in Kaliningrad, the enclave between the Baltic States and Poland, from where its 500 kilometer-range nuclear-capable system could threaten US assets as well as capital cities of some NATO members. In support of the Assad regime in Syria, Moscow also announced the deployment of S-400 Triumf batteries, an advanced anti-missile and anti-aerial defense system.
The choice to deploy these systems had both military and political implications for NATO countries. Analysts debated the reality of the Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, a combination of layered defenses that would challenge the ability of NATO forces to support allies if they were under attack, as a RAND wargame proved. Despite some new initiatives launched to great fanfare at the Wales Summit in 2014 and Warsaw Summit in 2016 — which were based on reassuring allies by deploying a forward presence in the Baltic States and by creating a battle-ready joint taskforce — NATO struggled to answer in a timely manner.
The culprit is not the fact that the Russian arms industry has developed — at least since 2002 — and has been fielding a new set of ground-to-ground cruise missiles that appeared to exceed the range set in the INF Treaty. The issue is that Russia has deliberately chosen to seize every occasion to challenge the West and NATO by undermining the alliance’s credibility and unity.
One blatant example is Turkey and its deal to purchase the Russian S-400 Air-defense system. Agreed in December 2017, the move has raised concerns in Washington due to the fact that Ankara was also on the list of countries waiting to acquire the F-35 fighter jets from the US. The delivery of the first batch of missiles to Turkey in July 2019 has embarrassed NATO, in light of the mandatory interoperability of the armed forces that is fundamental to the alliance. For NATO, the issue is less about the compatibility of the systems and more about the risk of seeing highly-classified information on stealth fighter jets being transferred to Russia.
Within the alliance itself, there has also been growing tension since 2016 amid the unexpected events of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Ever since he entered office, Trump has expressed his opinion about an “obsolete” NATO. The summits of 2017 and 2018 saw several clashes, with the US president criticizing some members of the alliance for not spending enough on their defense and not formally committing to article 5 of the NATO charter about the reciprocity in collective defense. Whilst Jim Mattis, the US defense secretary at the time, tried to do damage control, other NATO members were profoundly shaken by Trump’s comments.
Therefore, when the US administration gave evidence in December 2018 that Russia was in material breach of its INF obligations, NATO called on Moscow to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty. And so goes the story: On February 1, 2019, the US announced its decision to suspend its obligations under Article XV of the INF Treaty and terminate it within six months, on August 2.
From a NATO perspective, the support provided to the United States was both a political and military necessity. To quote Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, the Russian decision made the INF useless by having only one party bound to the treaty whilst the other was not ready to comply. This can be understood as a will by NATO members not to confront the White House on a sensitive matter and create additional tension when there should be none. Militarily speaking, it also makes sense to upgrade systems without entering a “new arms race,” whilst at the same time remaining prudent and responding in a “measured and responsible way” with a “balanced, coordinated and defensive package of measures,” ensuring credible and effective deterrence and defense.
The problem is that NATO is in a dire situation for three reasons. First, as many commentators have noted, the state of strategic instability between Russia and the US does have implications for Europe. If one reads this issue from the US administration’s perspective, it seems that China — not Russia — is the reason Trump decided to scrap the INF Treaty. The rising competition in the Asia Pacific between Washington and Beijing leaves Europe to itself, while NATO does not appear to be high on the list of the Trump administration’s priorities.
Second, when it comes to its perceived security, the US advances at a rapid pace that European allies cannot match. The gap between the US defense budget and those of the allies is enormous. In an alliance of 29 countries, the US budget represents more than 50% of global spending of the other member states. This has a host of implications, with the US being the only ally without shortfalls in its military capabilities. A case in point was in 2011 when Washington was forced to support other NATO allies in the Libyan War where it had to deliver cruise missiles because the stockpiles of France and Britain were running low.
Third, the strategic assessment done throughout NATO capitals does not consider the INF crisis as a game-changer. It certainly is a significant development in the security of the alliance, but it only reaffirms what has been done covertly and overtly by the Kremlin since Vladimir Putin has been in charge.
What is now at stake for NATO is to identify how to best counter Russian capabilities. Should it be only through a resumption of the arms control process? Or should it be by bolstering its defensive and offensive capabilities by upgrading its existing missile systems, at the risk of being accused of violating its own statements when the alliance says it is not directed against Russia?
Again, one answer might lie in NATO’s history and the dual-track systems established to combine the political and military approach and avoid the arms race of the 1970s. Whereas the political approach focused on a détente, the military side of the alliance believed that deterrence was still needed with a credible defense.
This recipe might still be effective, yet things have changed. First, none of the existing superpowers (the US, China or Russia) has any interest in legally-binding limits, which undermines any possibility of new arms control mechanisms. Second, NATO as an alliance must define its new role: Will it be a global security provider? Does it need to refocus on its core business — collective defense — or does it still want to address the other key tasks (cooperative security and crisis management) defined in the Strategic Concept of 2010? Should it modify its decision-making process to be more responsive?
These discussions have plagued the alliance since 2014 when Russia reemerged as a major threat. Tensions exist for member states in the east with the danger coming from Moscow, as well as states in the south due to illegal migration and terrorism. The risk of a regionalized, fragmented NATO with some allies looking to the east and others to the south will be the most challenging issue in the long run.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.