A New Euromissile Crisis? NATO and the INF-Treaty Crisis in Historical Perspective

Since February of this year, U.S. officials have criticized Russia for deploying a new dual capable ground-launched cruise missile prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. According to General Paul Selva, ‘the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO.’

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Since February of this year, U.S. officials have criticized Russia for deploying a new dual capable ground-launched cruise missile prohibited by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. According to General Paul Selva, ‘the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO.’ After years of lingering crisis and U.S. efforts to encourage Russia to comply with its treaty obligations, this new stage indicates that the INF Treaty may now be moribund. But neither Moscow nor Washington have overtly acted to bury it.

Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in late 1987, the treaty called for the elimination of U.S., Soviet and even of some West German land-based missile systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Agreement on the treaty was an outstanding breakthrough of superpower arms control and is seen as a catalyst for the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s reported deployments have sharpened the question of how to respond to Russia’s persistent violations of international law and its treaty obligations not to flight-test, produce, or possess ground-based intermediate-range missiles. Russia’s non-compliance with the INF Treaty is, of course, only one example of recent Russian violations of international law. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the most blatant one.

How to Respond?

Should the United States and NATO stick to a political and diplomatic response to Russia’s INF Treaty violations? Should there be a military response? If so, should such response include a counter-deployment in Europe of comparable missiles? These questions will be central to the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review and Ballistic Missile Defense Review.

In approaching these questions, advocates of either approach naturally invoke lessons of history. A build-up of Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missiles beginning in the mid-1970s was countered by deployments in Western Europe. These NATO deployments paved the way for the INF Treaty. One might, therefore, assume that it stands to reason that the United States and its allies should follow a similar playbook.

But there is risk in using the experience of the past too casually. Past realities were rooted in structures that have since changed or vanished. And, as the unfolding INF debate reflects, history can easily be misinterpreted.

Russia has reacted to U.S. charges with counter-accusations, denials of its non-compliant behavior, and indications that it considers the treaty unfair, particularly in light of Russian security needs vis-à-vis China. But Russia has made no effort to withdraw from the treaty, which it could do by exercising national sovereignty, as provided in Article XV of the treaty.

History Repeating Itself?

Three things have often been repeated about the current state of affairs: First, back in the 1970s, the deployment of Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles disturbed the military balance and created a dangerous imbalance. Second, with its so-called dual-track decision of 1979, NATO sought to re-establish an equilibrium of military forces in Europe. The alliance threatened to deploy comparable forces – Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles – as a reaction to the Soviets deploying SS-20s if arms-control negotiations would not bring about a settlement, including the possibility of non-deployment or dismantling of these forces on both sides. Third, the INF Treaty demonstrated the success of this approach by eliminating U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

It may now appear that, once again, Russian dual-capable ground-launched cruise missile deployments create a dangerous imbalance and that, in order to restore a more stable equilibrium, NATO must respond in kind, namely by deploying a comparable system in Europe. This logic shapes the bill for an INF Treaty Preservation Act that was recently introduced in the U.S. Congress.

A key problem, irrespective of whether U.S.-produced land-based intermediate-range missiles represent a military requirement to implement NATO strategy, is that the above historical understanding is inaccurate, for at least two reasons.

First, the original case for the deployment of Pershing IIs and ground-launched cruise missiles was not to redress an imbalance if the Soviets did not dismantle their forces, which had allegedly created this imbalance in the first place. In public, Western deployments were simply referred to as a counter to Soviet systems. But the rationale for this modernization of NATO’s theater nuclear forces was more specific. It was approved by NATO and formulated by the High Level Group of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, a body of high-level government officials in charge of reviewing nuclear forces under NATO command in Europe. An essential argument of the rationale was this: “should deterrence fail, the major role of these new long-range systems” was “to conduct selective nuclear strikes against military targets, especially against targets in the Western USSR” in order to coerce the Soviets to “cease their aggression and withdraw.” The deployment of Pershing IIs and GLCMs was not designed to achieve equilibrium by equalizing or matching superior Soviet INF capabilities, but to give NATO military tools it had identified through intra-alliance consultation in order to implement its strategy.

Secondly, NATO leaders felt they could not, in 1979 or thereafter, state in public that there was a strategic case for Pershing IIs and GLCMs and that some of them had to be deployed irrespective of arms control. This was for political reasons. For example, crucial non-nuclear European NATO allies, like Germany and the Netherlands, did not make such clear-cut public statements. The arms control process culminated in the INF Treaty and steamrolled NATO strategy by eliminating INF systems that many continued to regard as crucial given the rationale of the 1979 dual-track decision. Moreover, problems in other parts of the military balance, such as disparities in conventional or chemical weapons, were not addressed. Thus, the arms control process also produced destabilizing side-effects and political problems in NATO, along with the positive effects on the melting of Cold War tensions. But the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union collapsed, a strengthened NATO survived and the problem of nuclear deterrence in Europe more or less faded away (for a while).

Why does this matter today?

Moscow has been in violation of its INF Treaty obligations apparently for years. What’s more, Russia has reportedly crossed a critical threshold: Its new GLCMs threaten Europe because Russia has reportedly begun to deploy these missiles in locations where they can hold targets in Europe at risk. It seems that the INF Treaty is effectively dead, even if the doctors have not made the pronouncement yet.

But the INF problem today is very different from the past INF problem. It should not be framed once again – as an inaccurate understanding of history would suggest – as an action-reaction problem in the sense that Russia’s actions allegedly necessitate a response in kind or an imitation to restore equilibrium. A tough policy in light of Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty might be called for. This is an early test of the Trump administration and of the integrity of the NATO alliance. In this regard, three historically-informed aspects are worth considering.


First, similar to the proceeding in the late 1970s, the NATO allies should define, in a thorough process of consultation and under strong U.S. leadership, the scope of the problem. They should seek to develop a common view on why Russia pays the political cost to violate the INF Treaty without withdrawing from it and how the new ground-launched cruise missile fits into Russian military strategy.

Second, NATO allies must determine which military capabilities will be necessary for NATO’s deterrence strategy. Instead of being trapped by the logic of an alleged need of imitating Russia on INF, other decisions might be better. It might seem prudent to the United States and its allies to choose options that would not force the United States to alter its INF Treaty obligations or to give Russian President Vladimir Putin the present of withdrawing from the treaty. In this sense, some suggested deploying a mix of additional offensive and limited defensive capabilities or sea-based nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. A policy of imitating Russia on INF would also raise a question: Why does NATO not see a need to mimic Russia’s policy of maintaining a large arsenal of sub-strategic nuclear “scalpels?”

Finally, NATO allies should be straightforward to the public about decisions they deem necessary. In the early 1980s, there was a risk that domestic support in Europe for NATO’s deterrence policy might collapse under the pressure of Soviet propaganda and protesters in the streets of Europe. But this wound was partially a self-inflicted one, given the lack of determination to inform the public about what was deemed necessary for deterrence. Choices about adapting NATO’s setup of deterrence and defense capabilities in light of today’s INF Treaty crisis should be coupled with an information policy that reflects NATO unity in an effort to legitimatize NATO decisions. It is not clear why this difficult task would be any easier under conditions of U.S. suspension of its INF Treaty obligations, U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, or ground-launched cruise missile deployments in Europe. If NATO allies nevertheless agree to deploy such cruise missiles, it will be inadvisable to dance around the question in public whether this step is necessary.

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