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INFatuated, INFuriated, INFlexible?

INFatuated, INFuriated, INFlexible? Reshuffling the nuclear world order

What the international press and analysts from every corner of the world have speculated on for more than a year has happened. The White House has announced that the US is withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The decision is congruent with the US President's foreign policy preferences, but it could generate significant consequences because it of the possibility of disrupting an extremely fragile international nuclear balance.

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and subsequently it was inherited by Russia as successor to the USSR. This pact, which contributes to the security of the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, prohibits the United States and Russia from owning, producing or testing nuclear and conventional missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres, as well as launchers for these weapons.

Bearing in mind Russia's geography and Moscow's foreign and security policy, which is based on the “near neighbourhood” concept, medium-range nuclear programs from countries such as China, India, North Korea and Pakistan pose potential threats to Russian territory.

Washington and Moscow have long accused each other of violating the INF. Washington claims the Russian side has violated the treaty by developing the Novator 9M729 cruise missile (NATO code: SSC-8), with a range of 2,600 kilometres. In February, the North Atlantic Alliance urged Moscow to respond to the concerns raised by this weapon, and US ambassador to NATO, Kay Hutchison, has warned that the United States is considering military action to destroy the missiles.
The sketch of an international system without the INF 

For Putin, the withdrawal from the INF is not necessarily a new topic. He has brought it up since 2007, motivating that this treaty is obsolete and no longer serves Russia's national interest. Bearing in mind Russia's geography and Moscow's foreign and security policy, which is based on the “near neighbourhood” concept, medium-range nuclear programs from countries such as China, India, North Korea and Pakistan pose potential threats to Russian territory. Putin has positioned himself as the only guarantor of the sovereignty of the Russian state and of the security of its people. That is why Putin used the idea of withdrawing from the INF only to succeed in reinforcing the perception of nuclear deterrence in his neighbourhood and to project through the nuclear arsenal a position of power beyond the boundaries enforced by the INF, allowing him to counteract any possible nuclear threat coming from the previously mentioned states.

But, beyond the defence component, Russia can gain an edge in offensive matters, precisely the same role it attributes to the NATO missile defense system facility at Deveselu in Romania.

Moreover, Moscow wanted to project its nuclear force ostentatiously for reasons that are related to both its strength and weakness. First of all, for Vladimir Putin, it is extremely convenient that his country be considered a nuclear superpower and on an equal footing with the United States, because this position gives it advantages in various negotiations. Secondly, the nuclear arsenal allowed Russia to hide its military weaknesses. Until this process of modernization of the army is finished, and even when it is done, Russia will not be able to compete with NATO or China capabilities from the point of view of the military technology.

Therefore, Russia is in an awkward position in regard to its capabilities. Nuclear weapons are a means of intimidating the enemy, not weapons that can be used to win an open military conflict at costs that are acceptable to belligerents, or to humanity in its entirety. But in the long run, the nuclear arsenal cannot compensate for the deficiencies in conventional weapons. Thus, Putin currently can afford to place the nuclear argument in the background, since he has been competently employing the elements of the hybrid warfare to expand Russia’s influence in international affairs.

While Western European political actors seem to be rallying with the former US President Barack Obama, who is staying in the limelight to reduce the proliferation and number of nuclear warheads in Europe and the world, Central and Eastern European Member States seem to want more American presence on their territory, including nuclear forces.

Russia threatened to withdraw from the INF when the US wanted to deploy mid-range ballistic missiles in Central and Eastern Europe. For almost ten years, Moscow has accumulated enough political arguments against NATO sites in Europe that they are currently allowing themselves to treat the US withdrawal from the treaty very flexibly. The liberation from the INF constraints could be extremely good for Russia's security policy as a whole. Russia's new arms strategy, revealed in showman manner by Vladimir Putin, demonstrates that Moscow has a relatively robust capacity when it comes to research and development in the field of missiles regardless of range. The upgrade of the Iskander short-range missiles has been a real success that will continue over the next few years. Even if the closure of the INF Treaty does not automatically mean the development by Russia of new mid-range missiles, this objective is feasible in the medium and long term. Thus, Russia does not appear to have a security problem without INF at this time, being able to defend geographically close areas of interest, such as Ukraine, Georgia or Central Asia.

But, beyond the defence component, Russia can gain an edge in offensive matters, precisely the same role it attributes to the NATO missile defense system facility at Deveselu in Romania. Without the INF, Russia can target NATO targets in Western Europe, which is a powerful deterrent for the North Atlantic Alliance. This is also true, however, for the American side. Without INF constraints, the US will also be able to develop mid-range missile systems, a policy confirmed by Trump. Beyond the current locations where they can deploy weapons, the US can also choose other states to place missile systems, this time with offensive purposes. It is unlikely that, at the beginning of the arms race, there will be European countries which will refuse this. For this reason, Putin used a very threatening tone in declarations towards states that would accept this. NATO capabilities, in every respect, are and will remain far beyond what Moscow can do from a military point of view. That is why the idea that the US can benefit from more flexibility in projecting its military power is worrying for Moscow. 

Possible scenarios for Europe 

It is not yet clear how the European states will deal with this unilateral decision of the Trump Administration. In the beginning, reactions were divergent. In a context in which the European Union is trying to fill the gap which will be left by the UK (the second strongest EU military force today), a world without the INF could be dangerous to EU Member States. While Western European political actors seem to be rallying with the former US President Barack Obama, who is staying in the limelight to reduce the proliferation and number of nuclear warheads in Europe and the world, Central and Eastern European Member States seem to want more American presence on their territory, including nuclear forces. In this equation, Britain builds its competitive advantage and is strengthening its transatlantic relationship after Brexit. The US made the first move, placing itself unequivocally on the side of London in the Skripal poisoning, now Britain has returned the favour by positioning itself among traditional allies. Beyond this East-West dichotomy, NATO's decision-makers in Brussels must do their job very well in the coming period, because the US withdrawal from the INF means a per se threat for the whole of Europe from Russia, even without Moscow modernizing or developing another nuclear arsenal. At present, there is no anti-missile system in Europe that guarantee the deterrence of Moscow, and Europe's vulnerability increases without the INF.

The Alliance’s solidarity may be tested by this US decision. Especially since the decision can be interpreted as a signal from Washington that it has set countering the security threat presented by China above Europe's security in terms of priorities.

If NATO does not demonstrate the unity claimed in the past two Summits and does not reaffirm its intransigent attitude towards Moscow, the Kremlin will surely speculate this cleavage between NATO founding members and states such as Romania, Hungary or Poland. These could be targeted by Russia without medium-range missiles, but now Moscow can target Western capitals such as Paris or Berlin. The decision to place missile defence shields and maintain a constant military presence in Eastern Europe was meant precisely to demonstrate the Alliance's solidarity and cohesion. But this happened at a time when Moscow's threat was more relevant to Bucharest or Warsaw rather than to Berlin. The Alliance’s solidarity may be tested by this US decision. Especially since the decision can be interpreted as a signal from Washington that it has set countering the security threat presented by China above Europe's security in terms of priorities. 

Quo vadis? 

The US withdrawal from the INF marks a major inflection point in the US arms control policy. The treaty has a deadline set in Congress for early next year. According to an amendment to the defence budget in 2019, the President was to inform the Senate, by the 15th of January, whether Russia “violates the treaty” and whether the INF remained legally binding for the United States.

NATO Defense Ministers, meeting in February in Brussels, underscored in the final press release that the INF treaty was “crucial for Euro-Atlantic security” and that NATO members remain “fully committed to maintaining this historic arms control treaty”.

NATO Defense Ministers, meeting in February in Brussels, underscored in the final press release that the INF treaty was “crucial for Euro-Atlantic security” and that NATO members remain “fully committed to maintaining this historic arms control treaty”.

The nuclear issue is extremely complicated, but very well understood by both Moscow and Washington. Even if the political statements are aggressive, the actions of the two states are much more reserved. Diplomacy will play an extremely important role in the coming period. Trump's statement put the INF treaty in the spotlight on the global scene. There are many channels and diplomatic options in various formats with various actors, in which the US and Russia can engage in the coming period to respond to allegations of INF infringement. But diplomatic solutions require strategic patience and an outcome in which both camps gain something. But they have the advantage of reducing the risk of escalation and creating strong ties of trust for the future, a necessary attribute in this relationship.

By signing the INF Treaty, a so-called Special Verification Commission (SVC) was established as a statutory forum designed to address compliance issues, to improve the viability and effectiveness of the treaty. Such a format is even now the best diplomatic channel to resolve disputes resulting from the INF treaty for both the US and Russia. In order for such a format to be successful, both sides must be in agreement over the nature and credibility of the alleged violations of the agreement. There must also be enough political will to address them in a systematic and verifiable manner. In this sense, we must not be fooled by the statements of the two leaders. The US and Russia share a nuclear history that has seen times much more trying than these and have always found a middle ground.

In this sense, we must not be fooled by the statements of the two leaders. The US and Russia share a nuclear history that has seen times much more trying than these and have always found a middle ground.

There are even more formats today in which this issue can be addressed. The NATO-Russia Council, although fairly cobwebbed at the moment, can be a highly productive format that can address the issue of withdrawal from the INF, especially since many NATO Member States are affected. The European Union certainly wants more involvement in resolving this crisis. Britain or Germany are now seeing an opportunity to get involved in the nuclear scene openly and with notable results. Germany has its specific interests involving Russia, and this new format of cooperation and dialogue can work to its advantage. Last but not least, a trilateral Russia-US-China format, as they are main powers concerned by the medium-range nuclear missile issue, would surely be auspicious in this regard. 

What does Asia have to say about this? 

The extensive political and security implications generated by the cancellation of the INF treaty will be felt equally strong on the Asian continent. The dissuasion of China's military expansion in the context of the scandal expanding maritime borders through the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and the weakening of Beijing's assertiveness have certainly been pursued through this decision. In recent years, due to China’s expansion of economic power funnelled into military power development and mainland power projection, many Asian states have looked to the US in an attempt to restore the balance of power in Asia. The North Korean nuclear dossier has however shown that Washington can no longer engage unilaterally in Asia and that any major crisis needs to be resolved in collaboration with the Beijing government. And the US withdrawal from the INF is certainly not seen as positive development by the states in the area. Major states in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, emerging economies like India or Pakistan, who also have a nuclear arsenal, without considering the unpredictable Middle East, are certainly not happy with an international system without the INF. Until now, there was a possibility that Beijing would get involved militarily on the continent, but the probability remained extremely low in light of the economic disruption this would cause. Beyond the traditional flashpoints (Tibet, Nepal, Taiwan, the border area with India) that seem to be under control, China has no interest in starting other military conflicts on the continent that would impede its economic and political interests. The other powers want to maintain the status quo, which is convenient from all points of view. They have trade relations with China, while also having time to prepare for a possible military escalation.

Can the INF treaty still be saved? 

Donald Trump often has populist approaches in addressing topics of interest. His statement and withdrawal from the INF do not fully reflect his intentions. Surely, as in the case of the trade war with most of the world, Trump wants to bring his opponents to the negotiating table, but in a weakened position, while the US can still command an advantage. This seems to be its intention now – to renegotiate the INF provisions or negotiate something similar, so as to gain an advantage. It is not at all impossible for Trump to change his mind, stay in the treaty, and renegotiate it to something he likes better.

Beyond the traditional flashpoints that seem to be under control, China has no interest in starting other military conflicts on the continent that would impede its economic and political interests.

The renegotiation of the current provisions seems the best and surest solution, for the two parties involved, as well as for the framework of international relations. However, in order to keep such a treaty alive, more goodwill is required from the parties. More than they currently do, the two states will have to engage in confidence building measures. Transparency is the key word in this complicated situation. More examples of transparency would make both sides more aware of the other’s capabilities.

Diplomacy will certainly play a very important role in this equation. More diplomacy is needed from all NATO members or states like Japan and South Korea to further engage the US and Russia in this treaty or negotiating a revised version. More imagination and boldness are needed in the efforts of the two countries' diplomats to overcome this impasse. It would be ideal if the withdrawal from the treaty would be a controlled one. Even if the INF provisions were to disappear, there would be mutual trust as long as the withdrawal were done in a controlled and consensual manner. The two states can be optimistic about finding solutions for cooperation in the future, such as solutions that will lead to a similar treaty. 

Conclusions 

The US withdrawal from the INF Treaty is the point of inflection for the nuclear negotiations in Washington and Moscow. The world order cannot tolerate that, after the expiry of the START, the two nuclear powers will not be subject to any kind of agreement.

New nuclear talks between Russia and the United States should represent the opportunity to review the global nuclear issue. The two states' decision-makers can address the issue in various ways which could lead to the improvement of nuclear non-proliferation. In a post-NEW START era, nuclear weapons can be further reduced to a “minimal deterrence” standard. Also, talks on this agreement can become “multilateral”, by including China, recognizing the role that this country claims in the international system. Regardless of the provisions of new treaties, Russia and the United States would remain the main nuclear powers of the world.

More diplomacy is needed from all NATO members or states like Japan and South Korea to further engage the US and Russia in this treaty or negotiating a revised version.

In the medium and long term, the United States and Russia have the potential to reduce the worldwide number of nuclear weapons, even against the backdrop of other political and military disagreements. If China is included in this equation, then the sustainability of a future nuclear agreement is guaranteed. Control of weapons of any kind is primarily a political process, the technical requirements can be easily met. The two states must accept their joint leadership role in global non-proliferation and nuclear risk mitigation. These goals must be real priorities for their foreign policies, considering the nuclear arsenal they have, the visibility they enjoy in global nuclear regulation policymaking, and the experience accumulated throughout history in the field of nuclear consultations and negotiations.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016