31 July 2014
The West should try to preserve the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, but if Russia is determined to pull out, or the treaty falls apart, Western countries need to revisit questions of European security and the role of NATO missile defence and nuclear weapons.

Heather Williams

Former Chatham House Expert


Romanian soldiers guard the site of the former Deveselu military airbase in southern Romania, a site selected to host the US anti-missile shield, on 28 October 2013. Photo by Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images.
Romanian soldiers guard the site of the former Deveselu military airbase in southern Romania, a site selected to host the US anti-missile shield, on 28 October 2013. Photo by Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images.


In a letter on 28 July, US President Barack Obama wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin alerting him to a Russian violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The political timing of these accusations is no coincidence given ongoing tension over Russian involvement in Ukraine and the recent MH17 incident. The US has suspected Russia of violations at least since 2011, but is only now raising the issue on the international stage.

For years Russia has been hinting that it may withdraw from INF, which hawks in Moscow argue is a Cold War relic and favours the United States, as intermediate-range missiles are of greater strategic value to Russia than to the US. It is entitled to withdraw under Article XV of the treaty, which allows for a member to do so if ‘extraordinary events’ related to the subject of the treaty jeopardize its ‘supreme interests’, and the US took advantage of such a clause in withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2003. But a collapse of the INF would be a symbolic and practical blow to both nuclear arms control and European security and stability.

Arms control efforts heralded the end of the Cold War, and the 1987 treaty - which committed the US and the Soviet Union to eliminate their short and intermediate-range nuclear forces (those with a range of 500-5000 kilometres) - remains of significant normative importance. What made the INF so exceptional were its on-site inspections, which were unprecedented at the time and laid the groundwork for intrusive verification in other agreements, such as the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

INF also established a Special Verification Commission to meet and address ambiguities in definitions and questions of compliance. These discussions have historically promoted transparency and allowed states to explain military activities that otherwise potentially could be construed as a violation of a treaty. According to the State Department’s website, the last commission meeting was in 2003, but the current compliance question is apparently being raised in other forums.

Now the West must respond by emphasizing caution, promoting communication and transparency. Another step would be to reopen the Special Verification Commission to demonstrate the treaty is still active and take advantage of an existing forum for transparency. The US and Russia should continue to discuss the latest accusation, in the hopes of clarifying any ambiguities and bringing Russia back into full compliance. America’s information about the INF violation must be further investigated, and the results of these investigations and discussions must be communicated to the international community.

Thanks to the New START treaty, there are numerous individuals in Washington and Moscow well-prepared to address these concerns, and none of this should jeopardize the cooperation and transparency continuing to take place under that agreement. Once tensions over Ukraine have calmed, Putin and Russia can also meet for a Reagan-Gorbachev style summit to address outstanding arms control issues, including INF, missile defence and tactical nuclear weapons and plot a way ahead.

What if Russia withdraws?

But in the event talks fail to resolve tensions over INF and Russia withdraws, what next?

First, the United States can revisit its missile defence plans in Europe. In March 2013, the US cancelled the final stage of its ‘phased adaptive approach’ missile defence system − it was intended to protect against Iranian missiles, but could also defend against short and intermediate-range Russian missiles. Missile defence limitations remain a key priority for Russia, and revisiting expansion could be a source of leverage in talks about INF.

Second, European institutions governments and banks can consider tying economic and sanctions pressure on Moscow to INF compliance. In Moscow, money talks, and if sanctions begin to bite, the pressure for policy reversal will grow.

And finally, NATO can put nuclear questions at the top of the agenda at the NATO Summit in Wales in September. NATO has avoided nuclear questions for nearly a decade, but it is now time to examine and answer key questions: are nuclear weapons in Europe a key component of the alliance’s deterrent? And how will any changes in NATO nuclear posture be perceived by Moscow? Approximately 150 gravity bombs and their dual-capable aircraft (DCA) are stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Many of the DCAs will reach the end of their service life in the coming years, and the host countries are not all on board with replacement.

For the time being, NATO will maintain its nuclear weapons. If, however, the host countries or other NATO members determine these are no longer a necessary component of its deterrence, the alliance needs to examine other means of reassuring allies in eastern Europe and sending a strong message to Russia, such as by developing additional missile defences or other ground-based capabilities.

Again, these steps should only be considered in the event of Russia’s withdrawal from INF. For now, the goal is to keep Russia in INF for symbolic and normative reasons, to prevent the risk of an arms race, and to maintain stability in Europe.

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