Europe stands to be the biggest loser of the INF Treaty’s ending

The U.S. has announced that it walks away from the INF treaty banning intermediate- and shorter-range nuclear weapons, removing a cornerstone of the existing arms control system. The chances of being replaced with a better, multilateral agreement involving China and a handful of other nuclear powers appear to be slim at this point.

A scene of a happening in Germany in support of arms control
Berlin, Feb. 1, 2019: Demonstrators holding models of missiles and wearing masks of the leaders of Russia and the U.S. protest against the INF Treaty’s termination. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Besides Russia’s questionable compliance, the INF treaty has become problematic for the United States
  • If released from INF restrictions, the U.S. strategic position vs. Russia and China would be immediately strengthened
  • Europe would be the biggest loser, as its ability to deter Russia would diminish

According to Washington, Russia has violated the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Concluded in the twilight of the Cold War by leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union, the pact called for mutual elimination of land-based, intermediate- and shorter-range (from 500 to 5,500 kilometers) missiles. It led to the destruction of some 2,700 missiles by 1991. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia assumed the USSR’s treaty obligations.

The 1987 agreement has been a cornerstone of the nuclear arms reduction system and contributed very significantly to the easing of East-West rivalry, particularly in Europe. In recent years, the U.S. has systematically informed its allies in NATO of the INF treaty compliance issues and warned Russia itself, with little effect.

The European allies did not display a significant inclination to lean on Russia about the INF. Moscow, for its part, responded to the U.S. charges with its own accusations. It claimed that the construction in Central Europe of elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield enabled the Americans to deploy with relative ease, if they so decided, the banned intermediate-range missiles in bases in Romania and Poland – a few short minutes of missile flight from Moscow.

U.S., China, Russia

On top of Russia’s questionable compliance, the INF treaty has become problematic for the U.S. in the context of increasing strategic challenges in the Far East. China is not restricted by it and fields an arsenal of medium-range missiles that the U.S. currently cannot match.

A renewed, hybrid Cold-War-style rivalry has set in and is now becoming the driver of a new nuclear arms race. This contest will have strategic consequences not only for these two powers but also for other global players, especially China and Europe.

The consequences of terminating the treaty are quite clear for the U.S. and China. Released from INF restrictions, the U.S. strategic position versus China will be immediately strengthened. The Asian power has been happily developing all aspects of its strategic arsenal in the Western Pacific and acquired an ability to threaten U.S. naval vessels and bases throughout the region with supersonic missiles from its own shores.

The INF treaty gave Russia a strategic advantage over NATO in Europe. Under its provisions, the Western allies do not possess land-based nuclear missiles capable of reaching Russia from European territory. The U.S. Air Force has only a limited number of vintage nuclear bombs, deployed in its bases in Europe.

By walking away from the treaty, Washington runs the risk of expanding Russia’s strategic toolbox in Europe’s neo-cold war. The issue is dividing already NATO member states, weakening the alliance’s cohesion and sapping its strength. The situation would become even more strategically attractive for Moscow if the U.S. ended up not deploying new missiles in Europe – either because some allies objected to it or because Washington didn’t want to do so.

Europe has a problem

The situation poses a serious threat to Europe. The existing imbalance in tactical nuclear weapons (Russia has about 1,800 tactical nuclear warheads, while the U.S. arsenal in Europe amounts to some 200) is further compounded by the potential reintroduction of intermediate-range missiles to the theater. It is not in the interest of Europe to allow this additional Russian advantage to materialize fully. The European countries, however, have not been able to stop this process under the auspices of the INF treaty. The situation has become even more dangerous as the treaty unravels.

If the Russians make serious, official moves to deploy intermediate-range missiles aimed at targets in Europe, NATO will face an ugly choice. It could respond in kind and deploy additional U.S. missiles in Europe (a new class of land-based missile, currently under development in the U.S., or sea- and airborne missile systems). NATO members could also decide to keep U.S. medium-range weapons out of Europe and accept a serious deterioration of their security position.

That would be a repetition of the situation in the early 1980s, before the conclusion of the INF Treaty. At that time, Europe was the scene of fierce public protests against the stationing of American medium-range nuclear missiles (the Pershing and cruise systems). The protests were accompanied – and some would argue, orchestrated – by Soviet agitation not much different from today’s anti-Western and pro-Russian propaganda. A generation ago, the protests contributed to the negotiation and signing of the INF Treaty. This time around, the dilemma would be inverted – whether to install U.S. missiles in Europe in response to the Russian deployment (assuming, of course, that the Americans would be interested in such a move in Europe).

It is difficult to imagine Europeans taking to the streets en masse to demand U.S. nuclear-tipped missiles be stationed on their soil. Vigorous protests against the idea, on the other hand, seem nearly assured. Western European governments may find such a project almost impossible politically, even if the leaders viewed the deployment as needed.

To summarize: Under every logical scenario, Europe faces a deterioration of its security position.

Related reports

Scroll to top