Euromissile crisis of the mid-1970s, which had started with Soviet Union`s deployment of newly-developed SS-20 intermediate-range missiles instead of intermediate-range SS-4 and SS-5 missiles, had led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The 5,000-kilometer range of SS-20s, posed a direct threat to targets in North Africa, Middle East, Western Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, and Alaska. The United States (U.S.) lacked intermediate range missiles; it had only short-range missiles deployed in Europe, incapable of reaching Soviet territory, and had long-range missiles aboard submarines or deployed within U.S. territory. In 1979, the U.S. and its NATO allies initiated a “dual-track” policy that aimed to both intimidate and contain Soviet Union. The objective was to provide security and to assure Europe by deploying intermediate-range ground-launched cruises (GLCM) and Pershing II ballistic missiles and simultaneously pursuing an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union to reduce INF forces at both sides (FAS, 2019).
The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty focused eliminating nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. Owing to the INF Treaty, by June 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had destroyed a total of 2,692 ballistic missiles. After the dissolution of Soviet Union, the treaty was extended to cover former Soviet states, including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan; subsequently Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Czech, Slovakia and Bulgaria also eliminated their stocks of intermediate-range missiles (Kimball, 2019).
As both the U.S. and Russia suspended the treaty as of early 2019, we need to look into preceding developments to make sound judgements regarding the future of the treaty.
On 8 March 2017, General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the ground-launched cruise missile deployed by Russia ‘violated the spirit and intent’ of the INF Treaty. He had warned ‘Absent some pressure from the international community and the United States as a — as a cosigner of the same agreement there is — there is no trajectory in what they are doing that would indicate otherwise’(US DoD, 2017). However, there are ongoing discussions on who betrayed first the ‘spirit and intent’ of the agreement. Those recent developments may urge NATO to reconsider its missile defence architecture over the eastern flank.
The U.S. initiated sea- and land-based configurations of the Aegis missile defence system to consolidate NATO’s missile defence system and protect Europe against ballistic missiles of short, medium, and intermediate ranges. As part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), Turkey has been hosting a radar at Kürecik and Germany has been hosting a Command and Control Centre at Ramstein Air Base (Phase 1-operational since 2012); Romania has been hosting an Aegis Ashore site at Deveselu Air Base since May 2016 (Phase 2), and Poland will host another Aegis Ashore site at the Redzikowo by 2020 (Phase 3) (Reif, 2019). In response, Russia accused the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty by deploying missile launchers to Romania, and preparing to deploy the same systems to Poland. In 2014, the U.S. claimed that Russia had tested a weapon, the 9M729 (SSC-8) ground-launched cruise missile, at a range that fell under the treaty. In 2017, it was reported that Russia operationalised two battalions of SSC-8 providing coverage of all Western Europe and if fired from the Eastern Siberia potentially extending along the west coast of the U.S.(Gibbons-Neff, 2017)
On 20 October 2018, President Donald Trump declared the U.S.’s intension to withdraw from the INF treaty and accused Moscow of violating the treaty by deploying new intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missiles, namely the 9M729 missiles. (BBC News, 2018) Considering President Trump`s reference to Russia’s noncompliance, China’s development of intermediate-range nuclear missiles (European Parliament, 2019) and U.S. National Security advisors’ claim that INF Treaty prevents U.S. countering its strategic rival China in the Pacific and its medium-range missiles (Borger & Pengelly, 2018), it can be deducted that the U.S. has broader concerns than Russia and was questioning the advantages of the INF Treaty, regardless of Russian noncompliance.
One month later, on 20 November 2018, Jens Stoltenberg welcomed unprecedented levels of cooperation between the EU and NATO ahead of a meeting with the EU Foreign Affairs Council. The Secretary General noted that he would discuss the INF Treaty with EU ministers. He announced SSC-8s were putting the INF Treaty in jeopardy and warned: “We should all call on Russia to ensure full and transparent compliance with the INF Treaty because we do not want a new arms race, and the INF Treaty has been important for our security for decades,”.(Stoltenberg, 2018)
On 4 December 2018, the U.S. announced that Russia was in material breach of the INF Treaty, and warned that unless Russia returned to full compliance within 60 days, the U.S. would suspend its obligations under the treaty within six months. Eventually, on 02 February 2019, the Trump administration officially initiated withdrawal process from the INF Treaty between the U.S. and Russia. The same day, NATO members agreed on the following statement:
‘Following nearly six years of U.S. and Allied engagement with Russia, on 4 December 2018, NATO Allies declared that Russia has developed and fielded a missile system, the 9M729, which violates the INF Treaty, and poses significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security. Allies strongly supported the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty and called upon Russia to urgently return to full and verifiable compliance…As a result, the United States is suspending its obligations under the INF Treaty in response to Russia’s material breach, and is providing the requisite six-month written notice to Treaty Parties of its withdrawal under Article XV of the INF Treaty. The United States is taking this action in response to the significant risks to Euro-Atlantic security posed by Russia’s covert testing, production, and fielding of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile systems. Allies fully support this action…We urge Russia to use the remaining six months to return to full and verifiable compliance to preserve the INF Treaty.’(North Atlantic Council, 2019)
Jens Stoltenberg characterised the nature of the threat posed by SSC-8 to Europe by saying ‘These new missiles are mobile, hard to detect, nuclear-capable, can reach European cities and they have hardly any warning time at all, so they reduce the threshold for any potential use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.’
On 2 February 2019, Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was officially suspending the agreement as well and Russia would start developing new missiles. He gave instructions to avoid from talking with Washington on the issue and stressed that the willingness for an equal and substantive dialogue with the U.S. is needed. (BBC News, 2019)
Russia denies the material breach of INF claims by underlining 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile range is below 500 km. Should the 9M729’s range exceeds 500 km, the treaty requires its elimination. (Pifer, 2018) However, elimination of the missiles is highly unlikely as the treaty is on a path for demise and there is no tangible communication between parties.
Russia denied U.S. claims and accused the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty by deploying missile launchers to Romania and soon to be deployed to Poland. While the Mk-41 Vertical Launching System’s stated purpose is launching SM-3 missile interceptors, Russia asserts that Mk-41s used at the Aegis Ashore missile defence facility in Romania are capable of launching ground-based cruise missiles, namely the BGM-109 Tomahawk (Pifer, 2018; Kimball, 2019). U.S. officials refuted Russian claims that the Mk 41s placed in Europe are cruise missile launch capable including the BGM-109, as they do not have the software installed for launching those cruise missiles.
Russia’s development of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles was on the agenda of two important meetings in early 2019. In NATO Defense Ministers’ latest gathering on 13-15 February 2019 in Brussels, NATO Secretary General reiterated that Russia keeps violating the INF Treaty by fielding the SSC-8 missiles and all 29 NATO Allies unequivocally perceive deployed SSC-8s as posing a threat to Alliance security (Stoltenberg, 2019). On 20 February 2019, in his State of the Nation address Putin stated, “Russia will have to develop and deploy weapons that can be used not only against areas from which a direct threat will come but also against territories where decision-making centres are located.” He announced that the U.S. had ignored the INF Treaty by deploying missile launchers to Romania and Poland as well. (Luhn, 2019)
NATO Foreign Ministers also met in Washington, D.C. on 3 and 4 April 2019. Foreign Ministers of NATO Allies urged Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty. They discussed options should Russia insist on not returning to full compliance. The Secretary General Stoltenberg assured NATO response would be “measured and coordinated,” which will “maintain credible and effective deterrence and defence” while also underlining that, NATO was not planning to deploy ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe. (Stoltenberg, 2019)
The next meeting of NATO heads of state and government will be in the UK in December 2019. The Secretary General Stoltenberg said: ‘The meeting in London will be an opportunity for allied heads of state and government to address the security challenges we face now and, in the future, and to ensure that NATO continues to adapt in order to keep its population of almost 1 billion people safe.’ (NATO, 2019a) It is highly likely that the heads of state and government will focus on the consequences of post INF Treaty era.
While Washington accuses Moscow of being in material breach of the INF Treaty by fielding intermediate-range missiles, Moscow blames the U.S. for ignoring and violating the treaty by deploying Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence systems to Romania and planning deployment for Poland as well. The recent row between the U.S. and Russia reminds the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis where each side had used strategic choices as a bargaining chip with a game-theoretic perspective. The U.S. had pledged publicly, it would not invade Cuba and had reassured U.S. controlled missiles in Turkey would eventually be dismantled, and in return, the Soviets agreed to withdraw the missiles. In that regard, the strategic choices of each side within the context of the INF Treaty needs further consideration.
As Trump administration began the official withdrawal process from the INF Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, Russia gained the opportunity to exploit the situation and use U.S. move as a justification and pretext for future deployments of intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, which will threaten U.S. allies and other countries in Europe and Asia. There is a more significant threat as a knock-on effect of the potential collapse of the treaty: a nuclear arms race that could follow causing other states to pursue military nuclear capability. Moreover, in the absence of the treaty, the arms control relationship between the U.S. and Russian will substantially be undermined and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which expires in early 2021, will highly likely be the next victim (Sokov, 2019b). It is almost certain U.S. Congress will not support New START which aimed to reduce and limit Strategic Offensive Arms unless Russia returns to full compliance with the INF Treaty. (Williams, 2016)
The course of future developments will be contingent upon the real intentions of the U.S. and Russia. With the current trajectory, the INF Treaty is highly likely to end in August 2019. Even though both parties seem to have already made up their mind to obliterate the INF Treaty, we cannot rule out a compromised solution which might meet both parties’ expectation and of some European countries, who are extremely anxious about the pending escalation of an arms race to be confined primarily in Europe.
In the meantime, the U.S. announced its plans to test two types of missiles immediately after the treaty officially ends: a cruise missile with a potential range of around 1,000 kilometers; a ballistic missile with a range up to 4,000 kilometers. The flight tests for the new generation cruise missile are scheduled for August 2019 and it will be ready for deployment in the following 18 months. There is no clarity about the potential deployment country for systems to be developed. However, there is speculative information from the U.S. official sources that suggest the intermediate-range ballistic missile could be deployed on Guam, a U.S. territory to pose a potential threat to China and Russia. If the U.S., alternatively, insists on deploying those weapon systems somewhere in NATO-member European countries, it has the potential to instigate an arms race that would destabilize Europe (Burns, 2019). This will test NATO solidarity and likely undermine cohesion within NATO. As the security of the whole of Europe will be at stake in case of an arms race in the region, European nations may be reluctant to host the weapons systems. However, the former Eastern-bloc states in Europe could seize the opportunity to deploy U.S. missiles in their country as a source of substantial deterrence against Russia (Barrie, 2019). The energy dependency of Europe to Russia will likely factor in formulating the response to alleged Russian violation and further armament efforts that would pose a further threat in the region.
The proposal that prescribes NATO not to deploy new INF-range missiles in Europe in exchange for Russia not deploying 9M729 missiles west of the Ural Mountains is a substitute for their elimination, which is not likely to be accepted by U.S. and other NATO Allies as those missiles can be moved beyond the Urals much faster than American missiles could be shipped to Europe (Sokov, 2019a)
The best course of action for the U.S. and NATO is to urge Russia back into compliance with the treaty. If the treaty collapses, it would have other effects. Absent the treaty, Russia might deploy intermediate-range missiles without any caveat and restriction. On the other hand, Moscow might choose to reinforce its existing arsenal with new intermediate-range ballistic missiles. If so, Russian threat will grow not only for NATO but also for other countries in Europe and Asia.
If the U.S. and NATO fail to force Russia full compliance to the INF Treaty by incurring political, economical and security costs, which is the most expected outcome, the alliance should have a post-INF plan to counter the Russian threat and ensure the security of the allied member states. As Moscow will likely aim to build new intermediate-range ballistic missiles, it is expected that the U.S. will consider firmer reassurance measures to protect NATO partners in close proximity to Russia if the U.S. administration is committed to help protect Europe.
It is highly doubtful whether any conventional weapons deployments to Europe or Asia will urge Russia to change its stance against INF compliance; however, this could lead to the phased formation of firmer posturing of NATO alliance in response to mounting Russian aggression in multiple areas. The U.S. could deploy more non-nuclear air-launch cruise missiles and bombers to Europe. The U.S. has deployed strategic bombers in Europe as early as 2014 regularly. Since then, all three U.S. bomber variants – the B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers – have been deployed to Fairford Airbase for exercises with European NATO Allies noting B-52s can carry both conventional and nuclear weapons.(NATO, 2019b) On 01 April 2019, B-52s which were deployed to RAF Fairford, England two weeks earlier, conducted flights to Poland and the Netherlands. (USAFE, 2019). The U.S. might also consider having strategic bombers permanently stationed in Europe on a rotational basis.
The U.S. Navy could also increase its presence in the North Sea with surface and sub-surface assets equipped with sea-launched cruise missiles. (Acton, 2018); the Black Sea should also be taken into consideration for potential deployments. Moreover, the U.S. and NATO could deploy its ships and submarines periodically to European ports with sea-launched cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy might also consider home-porting sea-launched cruise missile-capable warships at another European port similar to Aegis-class destroyers based in Rota, Spain (Acton, 2018).
These measures; deployment of B-52 or B-1 bombers on a rotational basis to Europe or increasing the presence of ships in the North Sea and the Black Sea, will reassure alliance commitment to protect its members and potentially will help deter Russian aggression.
In conclusion, the NATO alliance has been facing a significant challenge as a result of recently strained relations with Russia. NATO`s -in particular U.S.- solid stance will be crucial against mounting Russian aggression in Europe and its efforts to drive a wedge among NATO alliance. The outcome of the current crisis has the potential to influence the cohesion within the NATO Alliance. The majority of the NATO Nations will not be willing to increase the tension further with Russia, along with nuclear and conventional arms race as Europe will be more under threat than the U.S. Europe`s energy dependence to Russia will highly likely influence EU policy towards Russia. There are doubts about Trump administration’s willingness to cooperate with Russia in order to prevent the collapse of the INF Treaty. If the U.S. is determined to back paddle Russian attempts to violate INF and urge Russia to full compliance, the U.S. has two options. The first option is to incur Russia powerful enough military, political, and economic costs to coerce Moscow to demolish 9M729. The promise of not deploying 9M729s to west of Urals will not satisfy U.S. concerns, nor most of other NATO members. The second option is pursuing diligent diplomacy with the involvement of other NATO partners which will require the U.S. to give concessions and show a willingness to negotiate the terms of a potential resolution of the current conflict, so that Russia might reconsider its commitment to INF and potentially New START.
* Aziz Erdogan, PhD is a non-resident fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.
Acton, J. M. (2018). NATO Should Save the INF Treaty. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/
Barrie, D. (2019). Ground-launched cruise missiles, Europe and the end of the INF Treaty? Military Balance. Retrieved from https://www.iiss.org/
BBC News. (2018). Donald Trump: US will build up nuclear arsenal. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/
BBC News. (2019). INF nuclear treaty: Russia follows US in suspending pact, 2 Feb 2019. BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/
Borger, J., & Pengelly, M. (2018). Trump says US will withdraw from nuclear arms treaty with Russia. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/
Burns, R. (2019). US plans tests this year of long-banned types of missiles, 13 Mar 2019. Retrieved from https://www.apnews.com/
European Parliament. (2019). The end of the INF Treaty? A pillar of European security architecture at risk, 04 Feb 2019. Retrieved from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/
Gibbons-Neff, T. (2017). This is the ground-launched cruise missile that Russia has reportedly just deployed. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/
Kimball, D. (2019). The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a Glance. Arms Control Association. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/
Luhn, A. (2019). Vladimir Putin says Russia will target US if it places missiles in Europe, 20 Feb 2019. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/
NATO. (2019a). Secretary General announces NATO Heads of State and Government will meet in London, 6 Feb 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/
NATO. (2019b). US B-52 bombers conduct training in Europe, 14 Mar 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/
North Atlantic Council. (2019). Statement on Russia’s failure to comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, 1 Feb 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/
Pifer, S. (2018). Is there a glimmer of hope for the INF Treaty?, 27 Dec 2018. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/
Reif, K. (2019). The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance. Arms Control Association. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/
Sokov, N. (2019a). A Unilateral, Reciprocal Post-INF Cool Down, 1 April 2019. Retrieved from https://www.nonproliferation.org/
Sokov, N. (2019b). The INF Treaty Crisis: Filling the Void With European Leadership. Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/
Stoltenberg, J. (2018). Doorstep statement by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg prior to the European Union Foreign Affairs Council meeting, 20 Nov 2018. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/
Stoltenberg, J. (2019). Doorstep statement by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Munich Security Conference. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/
US DoD. (2017). Hearing on Military Assessment of Nuclear Deterrence Requirements. Retrieved from https://dod.defense.gov/
USAFE. (2019). U.S. strategic bombers conduct flights to Poland, the Netherlands. Retrieved from https://www.usafe.af.mil/
Williams, H. (2016). Three-Dimensional Arms Control: A Thought Experiment. Public Interest Report, FAS, 69(2). Retrieved from https://fas.org/
 The Tomahawk has a range of about 1,500 kilometers.
 The New START Treaty entered into force on 5 February 2011; the U.S. and Russia agreed to meet the Treaty’s limits on strategic arms by 5 February 2018. LIMITS: 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments; 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments. (New START, https://www.state.gov/)