Should Europe be concerned following the end of the INF nuclear missile treaty?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Should Europe be concerned following the end of the INF nuclear missile treaty?

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was the bilateral agreement between the United States of America and the Soviet Union in which they had declared to eliminate all ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles of an intermediate-range (500-5500 km).

It is without a doubt a milestone in nuclear disarmament. For a long time, the treaty was considered to be stable and successful. However, this all changed in 2014 when the US first accused Russia of violating the treaty. These allegations were never resolved and ultimately led to the demise of the treaty. On the 1st of February 2019, the US announced the end of its commitment to the treaty, the next day Russia did the same.

On the 2nd of August 2019, all obligations to the treaty come to an end. This means that both the US and Russia are once again allowed to develop ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles, both ballistic and cruise. This situation leaves the door open to several considerations on the desirability and feasibility of a renewed version of the INF treaty.

Even though the INF treaty was a bilateral agreement, it had an impact on the security of many other countries. In fact, in the seventies, the Soviet Union had started to build up an arsenal of intermediate-range missiles and the European states felt threatened as none of them had developed missiles of similar capabilities.

Through NATO the US was persuaded to react against the growing security threat in Europe, placing INF missiles on European territory as a deterrent against Soviet missiles. In an attempt to prevent an arms race of INF missiles in Europe, the US had proposed to work together with the Soviet Union on an arms control treaty.

A couple of years later the INF treaty was born. This very incentive is still applicable today. The main difference is that some new players have to be taken into account. At the time, only the US and the Soviet Union had developed these types of missiles. Since then, countries like China, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea all developed INF missiles, as the treaty only prevented the US and the Soviet Union from developing them.

The time to start working towards a multilateral version of the INF treaty has probably arrived. Not only would this kind of treaty relieve some of the tensions between the US and Russia, but it would also reaffirm the commitment towards the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Indeed, some of the non-nuclear weapons states who are part of the NPT have criticized the nuclear weapons states for not making any concrete progress in their commitment towards nuclear disarmament as declared in the NPT. A renewed version of the INF treaty would go exactly in that direction.

These are just a few of many reasons why a new arms control treaty after the death of the INF treaty would be desirable. However, the scope of these arguments can face several constraints. 

If one looks at the worsening of US-Russia relations along with the harshening of US-China power struggle, the only plausible prediction for the near future is the absence of a credible alternative to the INF treaty, thus leaving the door open to nuclear rearmament.

Aside from all possible rational choice-based explanations, one key element is the perception of distrust. On several occasions, Vladimir Putin and his entourage declared that they felt betrayed by the United States’ behaviour: NATO expansion eastward and the intervention in Libya in 2011 are two salient instances.

Undoubtedly, this climate of mutual distrust does not facilitate the process of shaping a new treaty of any kind. For sure, not a bilateral one, not only because the two nuclear superpowers are at each other’s throat, but also because of the ever-increasing power of China. If Beijing is not involved, neither the US nor the Russian Federation would find an incentive to reinvigorate its bilateral commitment.

Following the assumption that nuclear disarmament is desirable, a multilateral treaty on intermediate-range nuclear missiles is in any case recommendable. To achieve this result, the political will of all parties involved is needed. Moreover, the consequentialist calculation merely based on national interests and security should be replaced by a humanitarian approach to reach an INF multilateral agreement.

By Maxim Schoofs and Francesco Pezzarossi

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