A Unilateral, Reciprocal Post-INF Cool Down

April 1, 2019

By Dr. Nikolai Sokov

The 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty will formally remain in force until August, but it is already as good as dead: Russia will continue to insist that its 9M729 missile does not violate the terms of the treaty while the United States and its allies will continue to insist it does and should be eliminated. Moreover, the United States reportedly plans to test an INF-range ground-launched cruise missile literally days after the treaty officially ends, with INF-range ballistic-missile tests close behind. There is little doubt that Russia will respond with additional deployments of its own. Given the pace of relevant programs, the new round of military stand-off in Europe will begin as early as next year.

Perhaps it is time to return to the pre-1983 abbreviation for this category of weapons: TNF (theater nuclear forces) instead of a more politically neutral INF.

Almost 40 years ago, an unrestricted and unregulated arms race in Europe was reversed by the INF Treaty. Today, the prospects of saving that treaty or starting negotiations on a new one are dim, at best, but there is still a chance to avoid or at least postpone the arms race. To a large extent, the current dynamic is driven by domestic politics and emotions; hopefully, in a few years, a different political environment that could allow for a new regime that strengthens the security of Europe.

The parties have already made tentative moves in that direction. On February 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would not deploy INF-range weapons in Europe or in other regions as long as the United States does not deploy its INF-range weapons in those regions. Of course, in the eyes of the United States and NATO, this promise does not amount to much, given their strong conviction that Russia has violated the treaty and is already deploying such weapons.

On the Western side, NATO Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg declared on February 15 that the Alliance did not have “any intentions of deploying new land based nuclear systems in Europe.” This is certainly a welcome assurance, but perhaps insufficient—intermediate-range conventional weapons arguably represent a greater challenge, since they are considered more usable than their nuclear counterparts and thus make the emerging military stand-off in Europe even more fraught with conflict. Russia will undoubtedly see the deployment of conventional INF-range American missiles in Europe as a threat and will want to respond.

There have also been proposals—most notably by Olga Oliker and Sico van der Meer—to reach an agreement between NATO and Russia to the effect that NATO will not deploy new INF-range missiles in Europe in exchange for Russia not deploying the controversial 9M729 missile west of the Ural Mountains. This is a reasonable proposal, which could buy time until all interested parties are prepared to address the situation in a more rational fashion, but, unfortunately, it is difficult to see any kind of constructive dialogue between NATO and Russia these days.

Perhaps a better way to allow emotions to cool down would be unilateral parallel initiatives, along the lines of the 1991 statements by US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, known as PNIs, or Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which paved the way for deep reductions of tactical nuclear weapons. Such statements do not need negotiations or even consultations; they are unilateral announcements of policy, which can be revoked any time deemed necessary. Such an informal arrangement is, by definition, tenuous and unverifiable (except by national technical means), but better than nothing—or, rather, better than an arms race.

The best way to proceed would be for Russia to take the initiative and announce that it will refrain from deploying its 9M729 missiles west of the Urals as long as NATO does not deploy intermediate-range missiles in Europe. This restraint would apply to both nuclear and conventional weapons. It would be easy to shape such an initiative in a way that does not undermine existing Russian positions: Moscow, for example, could restate that the missile in question does not violate the INF Treaty and that it reserves the right to deploy it anywhere in its territory; but as a goodwill gesture toward Europe and to facilitate a dialogue, Russia would be prepared to limit its deployment as long as NATO exercises similar restraint.

Hopefully, NATO would respond to such an initiative in kind. Some members of the Alliance, such as Germany, have already demonstrated reluctance to proceed with new deployments, and the Russian statement could help them secure this position. As in the case of Russia, this kind of unilateral policy would not detract in any way from existing US and NATO positions, but could help avoid the more dire consequences of the impending collapse of the INF Treaty and buy time until a results-oriented NATO-Russia dialogue becomes possible.

The key advantage of unilateral statements is that they do not require dialogue, only an internal political decision. Making such a decision is easier than signing a treaty because they are easy to reverse. For example, if NATO did not respond to the Russian initiative, Moscow would be able to rescind its statement. At the same time, each party would be more reluctant to leave the informal regime because such a step would also remove all limitations from the other side. Informal regimes have many weaknesses. They do not provide enough transparency and verification; it is easier to withdraw from them than from a treaty (and there is no waiting period between announcement of withdrawal and termination); withdrawal can be done de facto even without a public statement. Still, this is better than nothing, considering the current political climate.

Yet, even such an “arms control light” arrangement could be immensely difficult to achieve. There will be strong resistance in Moscow to self-imposed limitations, even ones that could be reversed quickly and at low cost. Though such a decision would not significantly affect existing or prospective deterrence posture (the current number of 9M729 missiles is relatively low and  likely to increase only slowly in the near term), Russia is no mood for self-restraint. Voluntary limitations, similar to PNIs, are associated with Mikhail Gorbachev, who in turn is associated with the demise of Russian power on the world stage. Moreover, Putin has already affirmed, in the aforementioned statement on February 2, that Russia will no longer offer new initiatives and that the ball was in NATO’s court.

Debates in NATO will also be difficult. Some members of NATO, including but not limited to the United States, will likely declare that the root cause of the present situation is the Russian violation of the INF Treaty, and that non-deployment of 9M729 missiles in the European part of Russia is a poor substitute for their elimination. On the more technical side, NATO will probably charge that the Russian initiative will be unverifiable and that its missiles could be moved from beyond the Urals much faster than American missiles could be shipped across the Atlantic. Similar arguments were made during the INF negotiations (and were the main reason why the treaty’s geographic scope expanded beyond Europe to an all-out ban), and are likely to be considered germane in 2019, too.

Nonetheless, even a small chance to avoid an arms race in Europe should not be missed. Both parties—NATO and Russia—have little to lose from a policy of self-restraint, and much to gain. Pursuing such measures will take courage: it is politically easier to advocate a hard line, but if we continue with current policy, we will never know whether a turnaround toward safer, more constructive course of action was possible and we might regret that we never tried.


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