On Friday, American President Donald Trump made good on his threat to pull the U.S. out of the INF treaty, meaning one of the last two remaining major disarmament treaties between the U.S. and Russia will expire after six months. Nuclear arms control, which has provided Europe with security and stability for more than three decades, will be history. The result could be a new global arms race.
What may at first glance appear to be a regression to the chilliest days of the Cold War, is in fact much more dangerous. When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF treaty back in 1987, the world was far less complicated. There were only two superpowers, each of which was disinclined to use its nukes thanks to the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction.
After the treaty was signed, thousands of cruise missiles and rockets with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers were destroyed. Today, there are around a dozen countries — including China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and North Korea — that have their own midrange rockets. These arsenals, sometimes derided as “a poor man’s air force,” are growing rapidly while insecurity spreads around the world. Countries as unstable as Pakistan have their own nuclear weapons, and Iran and Saudi Arabia could follow. In the Middle East, regional powers are locked in an arms race, while in the South China Sea, Beijing is stationing missile systems on islands that neighboring states say belong to them. Military strategists are planning interregional nuclear conflicts; indeed, atomic weapons no longer appear to be taboo.
The latest generation of nuclear missiles are difficult to intercept. Advanced warning times have become so short that humans are barely capable of reacting. The danger of an unintentional escalation — i.e., an accidental nuclear war — is growing…
The biggest impact of the collapse of the INF treaty is likely to be on Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks of a “great new risk for Europe” and has threatened Russia with countermeasures. “The collapse of the INF treaty is bad for NATO, bad for our security and bad for our relationship with Russia,” warns Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference.
How will NATO react? Roderich Kiesewetter, a defense expert with Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party (CDU), is already calling for a new version of the NATO Double-Track Decision of 1979, a mixture of “firmness while negotiating and a willingness to engage in dialogue.” “If Russia doesn’t dismantle its systems, we must ensure Europe’s security and shouldn’t exclude any options, even nuclear ones,” he says…
The question is why the new Russian cruise missiles make NATO so nervous. It’s not like there are that many of them. Military experts believe Moscow has deployed two battalions with the missiles in question: one in Yekaterinburg east of the Urals and another at the Kapustin Yar missile test site near Volgograd in southern Russia.
A battalion consists of four launchers, each of which carries six missiles that can be equipped with either conventional or nuclear warheads. That makes 48 new midrange missiles. Is that enough to throw off Europe’s nuclear equilibrium?
“These new missiles are hard to detect, they are mobile, they are nuclear capable,” says Stoltenberg. “They can reach European cities.” In addition, the new missiles reduce the warning time and, therefore, also the “threshold for any potential use of nuclear weapons in a conflict.” The INF treaty prohibits land-based and medium-range rockets and cruise missiles. If they’re stationed on ships or aircraft, the treaty does not apply to them. Ships and aircraft are easier to monitor — a surprise attack is less likely. Launchers for land-based systems, on the other hand, can be mounted onto trucks. They’re mobile, and they are easy to hide. A barn, for instance, would be sufficient.
With only a few minutes until they reach their destination, the flight time of medium-range missiles is so short that it is hardly possible for the opponent to even react. Cruise missiles like the Russian SSC-8 may be significantly slower than rockets because they are powered like a jet by a turbine, but they can adapt their flight path to the terrain and fly so low at a height of 15 to 100 meters that they are barely detectable by the enemy radar and, as such, by missile defense systems.
“The fact that they are difficult to discover, track and defend against makes them an ideal first-strike weapon,” says Götz Neuneck of the Hamburg Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH). Like many arms control experts, he considers cruise missiles to be destabilizing forces.
If the American accusations are true, then the newly stationed SSC-8 threatens Russia’s neighboring countries and thus also the European NATO states with their range. The U.S. itself isn’t directly affected - and this has sparked fear among Western military strategists that Moscow might believe that it not only has the ability to wage a limited nuclear war, but that it would also be in a position to win it.
The name of the strategy ascribed to the Russians is “escalate to de-escalate.” Some experts doubt that these considerations even exist in Moscow, but they are being treated as fact under the new U.S. nuclear doctrine. They believe the Russians could simply threaten to use smaller nuclear weapons at a very early stage in a conflict with NATO. That would leave Washington with one of two choices: Stand back and do nothing or respond with its own intercontinental missiles stationed in the U.S.
But that could also provoke a devastating Russian counterstrike. It all boils down to the question of whether Donald Trump would be willing to risk New York’s nuclear annihilation to, for example, defend Estonia…
And there is no shortage of military officials who feel that may be the true Russian calculation at play here. They believe Moscow wants to drive a wedge through NATO. From a Russian perspective, there is nothing better that could happen than for the U.S. to terminate the INF treaty, says Ischinger. “So they can split NATO.”
The reason for this is that the Europeans in the West and the East assess the Russian threat very differently. For the West, particularly in Germany, the INF treaty was the product of a patient policy of dialogue. The lesson being that trust and conversation are possible, even with opponents.
But that’s not the kind of thinking that Poland, Romania and the Baltic States could ever really sign up to — their historical traumas are too deep-seated. “We feel much more directly threatened than the countries in the West,” says Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz. Russia, he says, only understands the language of strength.
As such, Poland is pleading for the stationing of American nuclear missiles in Europe. “There is no reason to believe that nuclear weapons will not secure peace in the future,” says Czaputowicz. “It is in our European interest that American troops and nuclear missiles are stationed on the continent.”
The minister also doesn’t want to rule out the possibility that NATO nuclear missiles might one day even be stationed in Poland, in what could be a breach of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.