To the world that still remembers the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the INF Treaty offered great relief. It required the destruction of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometres—successfully banning their possession, production, and flight-testing. The verification regime included in the pact was the most detailed and stringent in the history of nuclear arms control for its time, and the treaty itself had unlimited duration. Its suspension as announced by the US administration on 1 February 2019, followed by Russia’s statement on 4 March, is now marking the end of an era.
Since the Obama administration, the US has been bringing Russia’s non-compliance with its obligations to public attention. The disagreement came over the 2014 flight testing of a new Russian ground-fired cruise missile Novator 9M729 (NATO code SSC-8), which allegedly travels at prohibited ranges. In October 2018, Washington announced its intentions to withdraw from the treaty after a suspected deployment of the missile in 2017. Moscow denied the allegations, labelling them ‘fake news’, and countered by raising three points of concern: the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defence system, ballistic target missiles, and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); the US refuted these accusations in detail, proving that actions in these areas were in compliance with the treaty.
In the midst of the political blame game, each side has been counting their blessings. Each can now pursue research and development of its own intermediate-range missiles to counterbalance the other. Indeed, the US suspension was followed by Russia’s announcement of its plans to develop new weapons; and it would not be the Trump administration if it did not answer with a counter-promise of spending billions on US missile defence systems. As the President put it in the 2019 State of the Union: should no future deal be achieved, the US would “outspend and out-innovate all others by far“. However, the promise may fall short when it comes to its delivery, as the administration has not requested any significant boost to the respective US Defence Department’s budget and thus effectively limited its purchasing power too much to execute the defence strategy.
There is also the Chinese factor to keep in mind. At the time of signing the treaty, the global supplies of intermediate-range missiles were limited to the two Cold War superpowers and the European NATO members. Since then, however, other countries unconstrained by similar obligations freely developed and tested comparable weapons. Indeed, such arms have become of particular importance to the Chinese army. Pulling out of the treaty thus brings more flexibility to address the growing military threat from Asia, whilst also possibly preparing the ground for a wider, future agreement. Yet this scenario may be difficult to reach. Russia has been historically interested in arms control when it felt like falling behind. While misconceptions about its military strength have been misleading in the past, re-armament on both sides could lead to a dangerous arms race.
The operational landscape has also changed substantially over the last three decades. The INF Treaty limited the large number of relatively inaccurate nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles flowing into Europe in the post-détente period of the 1980s which had caused uneasiness among the public. The military build-up of Warsaw Pact countries steered the great European missile debate, accompanied by large protests, which pressed NATO into adopting the double-track decision. With a combination of defence solutions, including the threat of deploying more middle-range nuclear weapons in Western Europe, and a proposal for dialogue, the Western bloc brought the USSR to the negotiating table. This development was a great achievement, as the class of missiles it covered was considered particularly destabilising for a continent divided by the Cold War: the missiles in question were designed for near-instant mass destruction, given their uniquely short flight times which allowed for little to no early warning and their destructive power which was comparable to intercontinental ballistic missiles. The current focus is on long-range conventionally-armed cruise missiles with a sophisticated satellite navigation allowing precise targeting employed mostly on affecting critical infrastructure. Additionally, the INF Treaty has covered ground-launched missiles only, thereby allowing the development of submarines capable of firing a missile from virtually any underwater position in the meantime.
With both countries announcing new arms developments, one cannot escape parallels with the past when the superpowers engaged in a Cold War game of “anything you can do I can do better”. Only this time, the number of actors have multiplied. The future will show whether the bilateral breakdown does end up in a break up altogether. For now, the New START Treaty is in place, which sets the goal of reducing the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half until 2021 and which President Trump characterized as “one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration”. Europe’s ideal scenario—the return to treaty compliance – has been brushed aside, for now, making the post-INF Treaty world wide open for speculations. It can be a place where NATO coordinates a cohesive strategy leading to a new comprehensive agreement—or we may, as well, be witnessing competition where one side tries to persuade the other with “sooner or later I‘m greater than you”.