By Michal Onderco | Rotterdam
On 2 August 2019, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War, ended. The United States formally withdrew from the treaty, although it had already been clinically dead at least since the US suspended its compliance with the treaty in February 2019. The United States had already publicly accused Russia of noncompliance five years ago, during the Obama Administration.
At that time, the State Department noted (in a bureaucratic document outlining compliance with arms control agreements) that “[t]he United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty”.
A year later, the United States added a detail, noting that the violation was related to a groundlaunched cruise missile which Russia had developed. The US strategy at that time seems to have been to bring Russia into compliance, but also to develop its own potential responses to the violation.
Russia for her part denied engaging in such activity, and instead also charged the United States with having violated the treaty. European countries’ response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up their defence spending and commitments. Such steps would help Europeans to address the security vacuum emerging after the collapse of the INF, and would also reinvigorate Europe’s defence posture and strengthen its position within NATO.
The birth and the death of the INF found Europe in different states
During the Cold War, the treaty was of crucial importance for Europeans, who would have been the primary targets of Soviet intermediate-range missiles if conflict broke out between the USA and the Soviet Union. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, European leaders voiced concerns about Russian missiles, particularly the SS-20. For European policymakers, and especially West Germany, the development and deployment of the SS-20 tipped the balance of forces vis-à-vis any future conflict between West and East decidedly towards the Soviet Union.
Germany, as well as other Western NATO nations, demanded that the US react with the development and deployment of equivalent missiles. Yet Europe’s publics mainly perceived the crisis in the light of possible nuclear holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of citizens went onto the streets to demonstrate against nuclear weapons and in favour of nuclear disarmament.
The domestic pressure on Western European (democratic) governments was enormous. The mass protests were memorable: in 1983, over half million people came to the Malieveld park in the Hague to protest against nuclear war and oppose the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Europe.
The conclusion of the INF treaty therefore helped European leaders to solve two problems: both the external security problem, and the domestic public pressure. As opposed to the massive protests against intermediate-range missiles in 1980s, the Russian violation in the mid-2010s was not met even with a shudder. By that time, nuclear weapons had fallen out of the public’s attention, and Europe – convulsed by the Greek debt crisis and the migrants streaming across the Mediterranean – simply did not pay attention.
European response to the end of the INF should be based around stepping up the defence spending and commitments. Such steps would strengthen Europe’s position within NATO.
However, to be fair, the United States was also not exactly forthcoming with information, and shared only very few details with its allies. Therefore, while US analysts such as former State Department official Steven Pifer accused European governments of not confronting Russia about the violations in its bilateral interactions, the Americans did not make it any easier for Europeans by withdrawing and classifying much of the evidence of Russian noncompliance.
Conversely, European countries realised the gravity of the situation only when it became obvious that the United States would withdraw from the treaty. Numerous Western European governments, alarmed at the erosion of the treaty they saw as fundamental to their own security, perceived the situation as the epitome of their strategic predicament in 2019.
European countries rely on the United States in strategic questions, even though the interests of the United States seem to diverge from theirs, and are confronted by challenges which Europe cannot address on its own. The end of the INF was a sign of tensions easing at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new era, in which international institutions (whether treaties or organisations) held a promise of a more orderly future for European countries.
The end of the treaty punctures that image for Europeans. The collapse of the INF has special relevance for the Central European region. Intermediaterange missiles are often thought to influence the balance of power on the battlefield, rather than having an innate strategic importance (although it is arguably difficult to consider any use of nuclear weapons as non-strategic).
For numerous observers, any potential conflict between NATO and Russia will start in Eastern Europe, and will therefore involve (or at least take place on the territory of) Eastern Europe. The Eastern European countries should thus be most concerned about the collapse of the INF and its aftermath.
However, the governments of these countries, with the exception of governments in Poland and the Baltics, have remained conspicuously silent. The Polish and Baltic governments have, compared to their Western European counterparts, been more critical of Russia, and have raised louder appeals for the United States to provide a deterrent solution.
The European predicament
Because European countries did not possess the relevant technological capabilities, they usually left strategic discussions to the Americans and Russians, in order not to engage in what German political scientist Ulrich Kühn called “arms control without arms to control”.
This led European policy-makers to resort to “seeking allied unity” and calling on Russia to return to compliance with the treaty. European analysts, the above-mentioned Kühn prominent among them, suggested solutions as varied as strengthening missile defence, rotational deployment of bombers, and the deployment of conventional-tipped sea-launched ballistic missiles on US submarines in European waters.
While such solutions are within the realm of the technologically possible and politically feasible, they might potentially be strategically destabilising and could increase the chances that nuclear weapons might be used. For instance, a recent review by Beatrix Immenkamp of the European Parliament’s Research Service ruled out every solution offered as being impossible, either because it was technically unfeasible or because the necessary political will was lacking.
However pressured and worried about the United States’ future commitment to European security the European countries are, they nonetheless realise that they have no replacement for the key role that the United States has played in European security since the end of World War II. However, the potential for the use of intermediate-range missiles creates a different type of challenge to Europe than to the United States, particularly due to the former’s geographical proximity.
European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing A2/AD capabilities. These could give Europeans a bargaining chip.
While the end of the INF unties the United States’ hands in a certain way (especially in relation to responding to China’s development of intermediate-range missiles and the future of American alliances in Asia), for Europe the end of the treaty opens up the option of nuclear war on the continent. Although this problem is particularly acute in Eastern Europe, the whole region is caught in this predicament.
For the same reason, the European countries need to consider their own unity in the aftermath of the INF’s end. Such unity is important both for the symbolic image of Europe as a global actor, as well as for the adoption of any future Europewide solution to the INF crisis.
Therefore, while Europeans should not stop seeking cooperative solutions together with the United States, they should also think about the potential steps that they themselves could take to mitigate the threat from Russian intermediate-range missiles in the future. The first step in mitigating this threat is to think about what scenarios might lead to the use of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, and then think about how to prevent any such scenarios from emerging through deterrence.
One of the most likely scenarios for a future nuclear conflict between NATO and Russia usually revolves around a miscalculated Russian attack on NATO’s Eastern flank, one in which Russia would start to lose ground. To prevent such a scenario, European countries should support the development of a conventional deterrent, including developing capabilities in the anti-access and area-denial fields.
There is no doubt that such a development would be a sea change from the practices of the past, but the upside of such capabilities is that Europeans might actually build capabilities which Russians might want to limit, which could give Europeans a bargaining chip for future negotiations on intermediate-range missiles.
Cross-domain deterrence offers another avenue for deterring future conflicts. The principle of cross-domain deterrence is to deter attack in one domain (in this instance, nuclear) by developing tools in another domain.
For European countries, there are multiple possible options. European countries could, either within the framework of NATO or outside it, develop deterrent tools in cyberspace which could significantly deter Russia from ever contemplating the use of intermediate-range missiles.
To ensure long-term security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves .
Of course, it remains questionable whether such tools could persuasively signal Europe’s willingness to use them, and whether they would lead to more stability or not, but offensive cyber weapons provide an option for Europe. The framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation within the EU creates an opportunity for both economies of scale and opening new avenues for European cooperation. The potential is enormous, especially for Central European countries, to both expand their industrial bases and to develop their own defence capabilities.
What not to do and the way out
One pipedream that European countries should not continue chasing is bringing Russia into compliance with the INF, or attempting to revive the INF in its original form. For starters, it seems that neither of the original parties to the INF is unhappy with its collapse. However, Europeans should recognise the fundamental security considerations at play.
If Russia considers intermediate-range missiles as fundamental to its security, it is very unlikely to give them up. The same applies to the dream of universalising the INF through a global regime. Not only are the United States and Russia uninterested in such treaty, but China – about whose intermediate range missiles both the US and Russia are concerned – as well as other countries currently developing such missiles also have no interest in limiting such development.
While the costs of developing technological, military, and political solutions are sizeable, the domestic political costs should not be forgotten. While European societies are no longer aroused by the potential of nuclear war, they are in no way pro-nuclear. However, citizens also tend to be sensitive to military expenditure, and would probably be opposed to steps which could be seen as escalatory towards Russia.
However, the aversion to nuclear weapons among European publics might provide a conduit to supporting the deployment of responses to Russian norm-breaking. The post-INF crisis should make it clear to European countries that, as much as they need to work with the United States to maintain their security, the interests of the United States are different from those of European allies.
Primarily, the United States – like Russia – is concerned about developments in China, and might therefore view the collapse of INF through a different lens. Proposals to develop European capabilities should not mean the end of cooperation in NATO. However, they would mean a development of European military muscle – something that even the United States has called for within the framework of NATO.
Relying on American-supplied solutions will not address the security concerns felt in Europe. To ensure long-term stability and security in the region, the countries on the continent need to start thinking and acting for themselves. In the same way as the European countries learn to represent each other’s interests in trade negotiations, they should get serious about security considerations, especially the Central and Eastern European member states.
Even if Europeans have a natural predilection for negotiations – and some analysts suggested that Europe should negotiate with Russia on a future grand bargain for European security – Europeans know too well that it is much easier to negotiate when one has something to offer. The fate of Europe’s counterparts when it comes to trade negotiations should have taught them that.