The news about the pending U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has fast progressed from the over-dramatized first reactions to even more frantic second-thoughts. Yet, since the political decision has not yet been finalized in a formal notice to Russia, it is essential to sustain sober expert attention on the consequences of the move—which, to be clear, would break down a key pillar of the arms control system.
The plea for a proper evaluation of these consequences comes loud and clear from Europe, which is going to find itself on the receiving end of Russian responses. Washington’s argument that Russian violations of the treaty—which bans testing and deployment of ground-based missiles—prompted the U.S. decision on withdrawal is solid, but Russia will still respond, and perhaps proactively. Moscow has good reasons to assume that while it is ready to lift this ban with the treaty’s demise, the United States and NATO are not.
timing: NO small matter
Even experts who believe that the INF Treaty is not beyond rescue—like my esteemed colleague Steven Pifer—would admit that it cannot be modified to include new weapon systems and fails to address the problem of China’s nuclear build-up. The incentive for Washington to get rid of this Reagan-Gorbachev-era achievement (one that’s turning into a relic) has been gradually becoming an imperative. The question was about how and when to make the move. It is disappointing, at the very least, that President Trump announced the decision at a political rally in Nevada—signifying his tough stance on Russia and thus downplaying the issue of possible Russian election interference.
The Russian leadership has wanted to scrap the INF Treaty for a long time, but President Putin has been reluctant to take the blame for such misbehavior. Instead, the Kremlin sought to provoke the Trump administration—known for its eagerness to break international agreements—into rushing the unilateral withdrawal. It has achieved just that, but is hardly in a position to harvest any political dividends. For once, Russia’s reputation has sunk so low that no attempt to claim being an innocent victim of U.S. pressure could convince even sincere believers in dialogue. For another, the INF Treaty codifies Russia’s status as a nuclear superpower on par with the United States, and no amount of brandishing of “wonder-missiles” can repair the damage to this much-valued distinction.
Seeking to cut short the predictable indignation in Moscow, President Trump dispatched National Security Advisor John Bolton to the Russian capital, and the visit produced a remarkable shift in Russian rhetoric. After Bolton’s first five-hour meeting with his counterpart, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, official Russian commentary already emphasized constructive exchange of views and trust-building. Further meetings with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu produced no mutual recriminations, and the 90-minute audience with President Vladimir Putin involved only a little bit of sarcasm. Apparently, Bolton’s suggestion for a short Trump-Putin meeting in Paris next month at the commemoration of the end of World War I—to be followed by Putin’s visit to Washington—is so attractive to the Kremlin that the propagandistic mourning for the carefully torpedoed treaty has been called off. Putin now promises that new Russian missiles would be deployed only in response to the arrival of U.S. missiles in Europe, and those missiles are still only in the early stages of research and development.
European frustrations are justified and relevant
What could have made Trump’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty a powerful message for both Russia and China would be the mobilizing of allies, both in NATO and in Asia. Instead, as in many cases—from the Paris climate accord to the nuclear deal with Iran—the Trump administration appeared to ignore European concerns. This could turn out to be a mistake, damaging the credibility of U.S. leadership for years to come.
The Trump administration appeared to ignore European concerns.
Europeans were certainly aware of the crisis around the INF Treaty, even though neither the Obama nor the Trump administration bothered to build a convincing case for proving Russian non-compliance or discuss a post-INF posture. The common stance of the key European states (to the degree they are able to take one) was to turn this crisis into an opportunity to put greater pressure on Russia in order to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Presently, only the British government has rushed to support Trump’s declaration, while Germany leads the EU’s ambivalent opposition to the announced withdrawal. Moscow may be entirely unwilling to return to compliance, but the Europeans are convinced that Washington made no serious effort at forceful bargaining. They know that John Bolton, who has been chosen as the key negotiator, condemns arms control as an undesirable constraint. And while the argument about counter-balancing China’s expanding capabilities may carry weight in American debates, for European politicians and opinion-makers it means merely that their security is sacrificed for the sake of U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific theater.
Instead of strengthening the case for upping Europe’s efforts at deterring Russia’s military pressure, breaking down the INF Treaty only increases the European opposition to Trump’s policies. It gives new impetus to the hardworking but ill-conceived campaign for abolishing nuclear weapons. It also plays into the hands of those who want to transform dialogue with Russia into accommodation and appeasement.
Too late, or perhaps not?
Bolton has impressed upon his Russian counterparts that the INF Treaty decision was made and would be duly formalized in a matter of weeks. This doesn’t mean, however, that it is too late to try to modify the old ban to fit new strategic realities.
It is clear that China cannot be incentivized to join this agreement, but its framework can perhaps be adjusted to cover the wider European security system. A new multilateral NATO-Russia or U.S.-U.K.-France-Russia format could be proposed, and new weapon systems (including the mind-boggling nuclear-propelled cruise missiles Putin advertised last March) could be included. U.S. research and development projects and financial plans related to missile programs generate no immediate need to get rid of the ban on intermediate-range weapons, and the political desire to scrap it can still be turned into a useful momentum for re-inventing arms control.