As Trump Moves to Scrap Nuclear Treaty, Europe Asks: Why So Fast?

(Bloomberg) -- Two years ago, President Vladimir Putin was asked if there was any value to the 1987 treaty banning Russia and the U.S. from having mid-range, ground-launched nuclear missiles. The answer, in essence, was no.

That exchange is seared in Rand Corp. political scientist Samuel Charap’s memory, not least because Putin began his response by asking if Charap was a spy.

Now that the U.S. has announced it will abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, citing Russian violations, the incident also sheds a skeptical light on the Kremlin’s professions of outrage. If hawks on both sides see the treaty as obsolete, it’s probably doomed -- and that’s a prospect worrying arms control advocates and European governments alike.

As Trump Moves to Scrap Nuclear Treaty, Europe Asks: Why So Fast?

With two of four major arms control treaties already collapsed and a third up for renewal in 2021, killing the INF agreement could throw European security in particular back to the pre-detente years of the Cold War.

Back then “you had short notice systems and distrust on both sides,” said Tom Plant, a former specialist at the U.K.’s nuclear warhead design facility, and now director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. A return to a world without arms control would be “hideously dangerous.”

He contrasted recent East-West tensions over Ukraine favorably with the "Able Archer" crisis of 1983 when, in part because of the recent U.S. deployment of mid-range Pershing missiles in Europe, Soviet misinterpretations of a routine NATO exercise came close to triggering nuclear war. The INF treaty followed.

What’s puzzling about the recent U.S. announcement, Charap says today, is “why now? And more broadly, why in this way?” There appears to have been no attempt by Washington to prepare or assuage the U.S. allies who will be affected, he said.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has said the U.S. will consult with allies before withdrawing from the treaty, though he’s left no doubt about the Trump administration’s intention to quit it.

As Trump Moves to Scrap Nuclear Treaty, Europe Asks: Why So Fast?

The INF Treaty is unique among arms control deals in several ways. It was the first to eliminate an entire class of weapons and to establish intrusive verification procedures. But equally unusual was that those most impacted by its adoption and potential loss -- the countries that sit between the then-Soviet Union’s border and the Atlantic Ocean -- were not signatories. As a result, they have little say in its fate.

Those security concerns -- having short-range nuclear missiles pointed at each other across central Europe -- haven’t changed, says Corentin Brustlein, director of the security studies center at IFRI, the French Institute of International Relations, in Paris. Again, he said, the question among Europeans is, “why the rush?”

‘Build it up’

U.S. President Donald Trump has fanned concerns directly about the potential for a new-era nuclear arms race.

“We have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up,” Trump said after being asked this week if he was prepared to expand the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. “Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop.”

Bolton was in Moscow this week for talks on the issue. Putin is expected to raise it when he meets Trump in Paris on Nov. 11, at a ceremony to mark 100 years since the end of World War I.

The treaty could be saved only “if Russia were to dismantle all of its equipment in violation of the treaty and China did the same,” Bolton told the Kommersant daily while in Moscow. “I think there’s zero chance of that happening.”

That’s probably true, given that China isn’t bound by the treaty and a sizable part of its missile armory would fall foul of the INF restrictions. The U.S. says it has lost patience, because Russia has been in violation since 2007, deploying ground-launched cruise missiles within the banned ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (approximately 300 miles to 3,400 miles). Russia denies the charge and has counterclaims against the U.S.

Bolton has been calling for U.S. withdrawal since 2011, before the U.S. made public its allegations in 2014. His concern then as now was that the INF allowed China and other non-signatories to build and deploy weapons the U.S. could not.

‘Naive’ Soviets

Putin echoed Bolton when he answered Charap at the annual Valdai conference in 2016. He said the treaty would have value “if other countries followed Russia and the United States” into it. He complained that instead, almost all of Russia’s neighbors had the banned weapons by now.

The treaty, Putin said, was agreed by a “naive” Soviet leadership. It forced the Soviets to eliminate their stock of intermediate-range missiles, while the U.S got to keep sea and air-launched equivalents the Soviet Union hadn’t developed, creating “a clear imbalance.”

Speaking at a joint briefing with Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin said it would be “very dangerous” to lose the INF and New Start nuclear treaties. “There will be nothing left but an arms race.” New Start limits Russia and the U.S. to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each and, unless extended, expires in 2021. Putin warned that any European country agreeing to host U.S. nuclear missiles would put themselves at risk of retaliatory strikes.

Yet Russia may have violated the treaty precisely in order to provoke the U.S. into withdrawal. “As the U.S. has alleged, Moscow has been working to find ways out of the INF treaty since 2008, developing two and deploying one missile that exceeded the treaty limits,” said Vladimir Frolov, a Moscow based foreign affairs analyst.

Stay or Go

Kori Schake, who served at the Pentagon and State Department in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, says that when it comes to the INF treaty, whether to stay or go has long been a finely balanced question.

But Schake, too, questioned the timing and style of the U.S. announcement, which she attributed to the arrival of Bolton in the White House. At a press conference in Moscow, Bolton pointed out he had also in 2001 announced the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

It would make sense, Schake said, for the U.S. to wait on collapsing the INF agreement until it has developed some missiles to deploy. A rushed withdrawal could also complicate debate in Germany and some other NATO allies over whether to replace their aging nuclear-capable Tornado aircraft with more modern U.S. planes.

After years trying to persuade German and French governments of the U.S. case against Russia, all 29 NATO members have at last agreed to language accusing Moscow of a likely INF breach. The U.S itself laid out a strategy for herding Russia back into compliance earlier this year, before Trump hired Bolton.

It isn’t clear today which European country would be willing to host any missiles the U.S. might want to deploy. Any attempt could create deep trans-Atlantic tensions, reminiscent of the 1980s Pershing missile crisis, when the sight of American nuclear missiles rumbling through German villages sparked protests.

Even if there’s no rerun of the 1980s, ending the INF treaty will create friction between the U.S. and its NATO allies, because they will see Washington as sacrificing Europe’s security interests to improve its own position in Asia, according to Schake. The U.S. will be “forced into a conversation about whether it is willing to increase risks to Europe in order to manage the rise of China,” she said. “That’s how the Europeans will think about it, and by the way they are not wrong.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.