A missile stalemate

11 December 2018, 09:00

For 30 years the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been a cornerstone of European stability. President Trump’s announcement that the United States is to pull out of the landmark treaty, signed by President Reagan and President Gorbachev, has therefore not only alarmed European politicians and strategists: it has triggered a frantic process of transatlantic lobbying to persuade the erratic US president to change his mind.

  Although America has been concerned for some years that Russia was violating the agreement, the timing of Trump’s announcement in October came as a surprise to America’s Nato allies. The Europeans agree with Washington that Russia has already broken the spirit of the agreement – which led to the destruction of all Russian and American missile systems with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres – by developing a new ground-launched cruise missile system with a greater range than that permitted by the INF treaty. But instead of scrapping the deal, America’s allies want the Trump administration to stick to the terms of the treaty and force the Russians to do so also.

  The allies have a huge stake in the treaty. It principally affects security within Europe, rather than in America. For more than a generation the treaty has ensured that west European cities would not be the target of any Soviet or Russian missile attack. After the Trump announcement, France and Germany felt nervous. They criticised Russian attempts to cheat on the treaty. But they also called on Washington not to scrap it. Even Britain, which normally supports America on all defence issues, said it wanted the treaty to remain in force. And so did Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato Secretary-General.

  As the Europeans know, however, the Trump policy is very much the product of the tough line taken by John Bolton, the president’s hard-line national security adviser. He dislikes all arms control treaties as he says they limit America’s freedom to decide its own defence policies. Before his appointment, Bolton proposed the US withdraw from the treaty. He also wants to pull the US out of the new Start agreement, which has reduced US and Russian long-range strategic nuclear arms.

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His abrasive approach to the Russians seems now to echo Trump’s thinking. Until recently the president has tried not to criticise Moscow – mostly spectacularly during his embarrassing Helsinki summit meeting with Putin in the summer. But he is now obliged to take a tougher line – partly to satisfy Republican supporters in the run-up to the mid-term congressional elections in America, and partly because he does not want anyone to think that he is soft on the Russians out of fear that they have compromising information on his financial deals with them in the past.

  The problem for the Europeans is that they, like the Americans, are furious at what they see as cheating by Russia. But there is little they can do to stop Putin going ahead with the development of a missile system – known as the 9M729 in Russia – that is clearly outside the limits of the INF treaty. Should Nato push for further sanctions against Russia? It would probably not work – and the sanctions imposed after Russia’s seizure of Ukraine have certainly not altered Russian policies, except to make them more anti-Western. Should they continue diplomatic pressure? That also seems to have had no effect so far. Or should America start building new medium-range missiles of its own? That programme has already begun, with Congress allocating $58 million in 2017. But it will take several years before any American missile force reaches the numbers that might worry Moscow.

  Tearing up the treaty looks like a sharper and more effective answer. But it gives Moscow a huge propaganda advantage. Already the Russians are portraying the Trump Administration as warmongers who are jeopardizing European security. That is already having an effect on European public opinion. And if the US goes ahead with withdrawal from the treaty, it will leave Russia free to deploy new cruise missiles near Nato’s borders, threatening European countries. New Nato members in eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Baltics, feel especially vulnerable.

  Thirty years ago, when the Soviet Union deployed the SS-20 intermediate range missiles that threatened Europe, Nato responded with what was called a “dual-track decision”. That involved deploying similar weapons of its own while at the same time carrying on negotiations with Moscow to abolish both the SS-20s and the Pershing and cruise missiles controversially deployed by Nato in west Germany.

  There is no appetite for a similar strategy today, and it probably would not work. For a start, Bolton has no interest in any negotiations with the Putin government. He visited Moscow last month for talks but did not come back with any fresh proposals on negotiations or propose ways to strengthen the treaty. Instead he described it as “outdated, outmoded and ignored by other countries.”

   Congress would also not want to spend the money on full-scale deployment of intermediate range weapons. They would be hugely expensive, and most Americans, including Trump, think that the Europeans should pay more for their own defence. And finally, if the deployment of Pershing and cruise weapons provoked riots and demonstrations in West Germany in the 1980s, it would create even more turmoil today. No German government would survive a proposal to reintroduce American nuclear weapons on its territory.

  One solution would be to deploy new American weapons in Poland and elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact countries. This would be hugely popular with the local populations, who are fearful of Russian intentions and want the assurance of western forward deployments. But any deployment would be a flat contradiction of a clear promise given by the West. In the Nato-Russia Founding Act of 1997, the allies stated that they had “no intention, no plan and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new member states.” They made it clear to Moscow that they did not even plan to establish nuclear weapons storage sites there.

  Trump officials could argue that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. They could say that this broke the terms of the Nato-Russia agreement, so there is no need for the Western side to keep to its own promises. But it would need the consent of all the Nato members to terminate this agreement, and Germany would certainly not agree to do so.

  The Europeans are preparing to lobby Washington and urge it to stick to the treaty. But there are two big issues that weaken their case. The first is that Trump is already furious with the Europeans for opposing new sanctions on Iran, reimposed at the beginning of this month. The Europeans have been plotting ways for Iran to continue to trade with them without using dollars. But Washington sees this as European betrayal of his determination to end the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama. He will be unlikely to listen to their pleadings on another issue.

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The second problem is China. The Chinese are not party to the INF treaty, and in the 30 years since it was signed they have been developing their own missile systems of the kind that the treaty prohibits Russia and America from developing. Trump said it was “unacceptable” that Russia and China were both going ahead with these missile while America was not.

  Clearly, the Trump administration believes it must do something to show Moscow that it will not tolerate the violations it is sure the Russians have been carrying out for the past four years. America has not published the data proving that Russia is cheating, because much of it is secret and gathered by intelligence sources.

 Trump could however send more US submarines to European waters that would be armed with nuclear weapons. This would not violate the INF treaty, would not anger European public opinion as the ships would not be visible, and would certainly worry Russia. It is a gamble, however. For the moment, the main argument is across the Atlantic between the Bolton hardliners who are preparing to scrap the treaty and the Europeans who believe this would be disastrous for their security. 

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