On Feb. 2, the United States formally declared its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty. The official declaration, which had been signaled by the Trump administration well in advance, set the clock ticking: Unless Russia unexpectedly returns to full and verifiable compliance with the treaty through the destruction of all its INF-violating missile systems, the U.S. withdrawal will become effective in early August. The formal termination of the treaty will have wide-ranging implications for European security, the U.S. military force posture in Europe, NATO deterrence and defense policy, and arms control.
For over 30 years, the INF treaty has been an enduring symbol of the Cold War’s denouement. When the Soviet Union and the U.S. signed the treaty in 1987, it effectively ended a buildup of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with short to intermediate ranges, defined as 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Since then, around 2,700 missiles, most of which would have been deployed on the European continent, have been eliminated, making the INF a foundational arms control agreement.
In examining the implications of the treaty’s demise, a good place to start is the question of why Russia decided to violate it in the first place by developing and fielding the 9M729 missile system, known in the West by its NATO codename SSC-8. From a purely military perspective, one could point to three main advantages that possessing INF-banned land-based intermediate-range missiles would confer. First, they would enhance Russian defenses against an increasingly powerful Chinese military in its Far East. Second, they would give Russia options in the event that the U.S. expands its advantage in the development of hypersonic weapons. Third, and probably most important, they would help Russia redress its considerable airpower disadvantage relative to the U.S. and NATO. The Russian political and defense establishment has understood all these elements well for years and been keen to undercut the treaty.
Under the circumstances, the American response to the Russian violation is logical, as a situation whereby the U.S. fully abides by the treaty and Russia does not is untenable. However, there are several myths about the U.S. exit strategy from the treaty, as well as the post-INF world it ushers in, that need to be debunked.
First, some critics of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty claim that a diplomatic solution was still possible. But whatever one thinks of Washington’s decision, it certainly was not taken precipitously. At least since May 2013, American officials tried to engage the Russian side in a dialogue to dispel its concerns over the SSC-8. This attempted engagement took place through multiple channels, including high-level political discussions with the Russian leadership, such as the Strategic Stability Talks; bilateral expert meetings; and convening the Special INF Verification Commission. In July 2014, the Obama administration decided to publicly call out Russia’s treaty violations through the State Department’s Arms Control Compliance Report.
Since then, Russia’s diplomatic position has evolved. At first, Russia simply denied the existence of the new missile. Moscow later acknowledged its existence, in December 2017, but claimed that the SSC-8 complied with the INF treaty. A final diplomatic push came from NATO this past December, when Russia was given a grace period of 60 days to return to compliance. A session of the NATO-Russia Council was held to discuss the matter last month. In the end, Russia was not interested in finding a diplomatic way out.
Second, many observers have predicted that, following the INF treaty’s demise, an arms race will break out. In practical terms, Russia already fired the starter’s gun for that race a few years ago with, among others, the development of the SSC-8. Because this preceded Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and military offensive in eastern Ukraine, however, many turned a blind eye not only to the treaty violation, but also to the broader challenge of Russia’s decade-long military modernization initiative. According to the World Bank, Russian military expenditures rose over the past decade from over $43 billion to more than $66 billion, reaching 4.26 percent of GDP in 2017, up from 3.39 percent GDP in 2007.
Some believe that the end of the INF will usher in an end to arms control. In reality, the INF is not the first treaty Russia has violated.Moreover, since at least 2012, Russia has made its Western and Southern military districts, including its military presence in Kaliningrad and illegally occupied Crimea, a top priority in its military modernization program, equipping the units in both districts with the most modern and technologically advanced weapons systems. Both areas now have the necessary air power, maritime capabilities, offensive and defensive missile systems, and offensive electronic warfare and cyber capabilities to deter or repel a conventional attack, making them highly sophisticated “anti-access, area-denial” zones, in military parlance. And Moscow is not done yet. In his speech before the Russian Federal Assembly last March, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a suite of new missile systems to further enhance Russia’s strike capabilities.
Third, some believe that the end of the INF will also usher in an end to arms control. In reality, the INF is not the first treaty Russia has violated. For example, as NATO allies continue to underline, Russia is still in violation of the Open Skies treaty that established a regime of unarmed observation flights over the U.S. and Europe. And the Russian defense establishment has on numerous occasions more broadly signaled its diminishing interest in transparency and risk-reduction measures. Nevertheless, at least two elements of the nuclear arms control architecture will remain in place in the post-INF world: the Russian-American New START treaty, which is valid until 2021 and whose extension is possible and probable; and the multilateral treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The goal should be not only to preserve both treaties, but enhance them and increase their effectiveness.
One important element of the larger European security equation in the post-INF world will be NATO and its response, both politically and militarily. NATO’s full political backing of the U.S. decision to withdraw from the INF treaty not only underlined the resilience of trans-Atlantic unity, but also sent a powerful deterrence message to Russia. At the same time, there are at least two concrete military implications for NATO that the alliance will have to deal with in the coming months.
First, NATO needs to further strengthen its deterrence and defense posture to respond to the new threat represented by the SSC-8 missile. Land-based, mobile, difficult to identify, rapidly deployable and armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, it can hit almost any target in most European countries—including civilian and military critical infrastructure—with little or no warning time. Those capabilities, combined with Russia’s already existing anti-access, area-denial bubbles in the Kaliningrad Oblast and Crimea, could considerably restrict NATO’s operational freedom of action in a conflict. Therefore, NATO’s reply should include improved advanced defense planning, further streamlining of political and military decision-making processes, an increased number of forces and equipment on its eastern flank, and the prioritization of capabilities to counter the military systems Russia has built up in Kaliningrad and Crimea—on land, in the air and at sea in the NATO Defense Planning Process.
Second, NATO must make clear to Russia through effective strategic communication that it is and will remain a nuclear alliance. Nuclear weapons remain a crucial element of Russia’s strategy of “escalation dominance,” or constraining an adversary’s ability to escalate a potential conflict, whether by deterrence or preemptive strikes. In a scenario in which allied forces might consider breaking through Russia’s anti-access, area-denial zones, for example, Russia could threaten to use its nuclear capabilities as a deterrent. Therefore, the development of U.S. land-based intermediate-range nuclear weapons and their deployment in Europe should not be ruled out, although other military responses might also prove effective.
The post-INF world will be an important test for NATO and trans-Atlantic security. The development and deployment of the SSC-8 must be seen in the context of Russia’s broader defense strategy, through which Moscow seeks to control conflict escalation by dominating the escalation mechanisms and circumstances where nuclear weapons play a fundamental role. NATO should respond not just to the INF violations, but to this broader challenge to restore deterrence and the stability it generates.