Europe Must Urgently Take a Stance Against Worldwide Rocket Proliferation
Last Friday, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement between the US and Russia expired on schedule, after both sides declared their withdrawal six months ago. The attempt by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and other European leaders to rescue the agreement, which is important for Europe’s security situation, has failed.
In 1987, the USA and the Soviet Union undertook to destroy all cruise missiles and ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5500 km and to renounce the development, production and deployment of such systems. Europe was thus no longer held hostage by Soviet missiles. In the event of a feared nuclear exchange, the two superpowers would have directed their intercontinental missiles directly at the enemy’s territory.
The INF Treaty is the only arms agreement that has not only limited, but also completely banned certain weapons. Its end means a further step backwards in the already crumbling global disarmament regime. The biggest losers last Friday were the Europeans, who have to wonder whether they want to accept the risk of a threat from Russian missiles or whether they want to deter such a threat by stationing American or their own medium-range missiles.
Two-Class Security Society
This question threatens to open up new fault lines within the European Union and the transatlantic alliance. While member states such as Poland might be interested in the installation of American missiles on their soil, Western European member states such as Germany might strictly oppose this, therefore leading to a two-tier security society.
Over the past few weeks, the question of whom to blame for the failure of the treaty has been subject to intense debate. NATO allies agree that Russia has been violating the treaty provisions for years, with the development of the Iskander 9M 729 cruise missile. Several dozen missiles of this type have apparently already been introduced to the Russian armed forces. As a result, the USA decided last autumn to insist no longer on compliance with the treaty and to bury it.
This development fits the picture at first. On the one hand, there is a Russian President who is pursuing an aggressive foreign policy towards Europe and who has already repeatedly broken international law by annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine with Russian soldiers. On the other hand, there is an American president who, with the Paris Convention on Climate Change and the Iran Nuclear Accord, has torn apart two diplomatic achievements of the international community.
However, the end of the INF contract cannot only be traced back to presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Irrespective of the characters of these heads of state, the agreement would have been unlikely to survive.
Firstly, an arms control system can only be successful if both sides regularly convince themselves of each other’s compliance with the treaty. The INF Treaty therefore provided for a system of verification visits until 2001, of which more than 1,000 took place. However, both sides never agreed on modalities for continuing these verification measures. Since both states could only rely on intelligence and satellite imagery, mistrust developed and grew over time.
Secondly, the agreement only bound the contracting parties Russia and the USA, while other emerging powers were able to develop or legally purchase ground-based medium-range systems without hindrance. Today, for example, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel are in the possession of such missiles. This development is putting particular pressure on Russia, which borders on several of the mentioned countries. Although the USA can rely on a large potential of air- and sea-supported missiles in the Pacific region to deter China, which have not yet been covered by the INF Treaty, new tactical options are also opening up for them as a result of the termination.
Both sides therefore had a motive for resigning and the chances of rescuing the INF Treaty were marginal. The attempt to extend the agreement to other states has already failed in the past and seems hopeless, above all because of China’s position. Medium-range missiles are the elementary instrument for Beijing to be able to threaten Taiwan militarily.
No New Agreement in Sight
But as worrying as the failure of the INF Treaty may be for Europe, the absence of any initiatives for new arms control agreements is much more alarming, especially for the containment of the current arms race with new cruise missiles and increasingly powerful ballistic missiles.
While North Korea and Iran regularly increase the range of their launchers, India tested its first hypersonic missile last month. Cruise missiles of this kind fly at more than five times the speed of sound and can practically not be fought by today’s missile defence systems. The advance warning times shrink to a minimum and the USA, Russia, as well as China already own such systems.
Focusing on missiles is particularly rewarding for emerging powers such as India, Pakistan and Iran. The sole purpose of owning these weapons is to credibly threaten retaliation in the event of an attack. Nevertheless, even if neither side intends to use its missiles offensively, technical failure or human error can quickly lead to an unintended chain reaction in the face of short warning times.
In view of these developments, new global arms control initiatives are urgently needed. In today’s multipolar world, instead of mourning the loss of a Cold War bilateral agreement, we must both minimise the risk of escalation and find a way out of an expensive, wasteful arms race to the bottom.
In doing so, Europe cannot rely on the support of the current US administration. It should therefore prefer to use its own diplomatic and military weight, which it balances with two permanent members of the UN Security Council and two nuclear powers, and to advocate the establishment of new arms control treaties. This requires close involvement of the United Kingdom, regardless of its membership status to the EU.
The first objectives of new arms agreements could, for example, be to ban the testing of hypersonic missiles or the loading of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. These would only be small steps on a long road to a new arms control system. Still, even the bilateral agreements concluded by the Soviet Union and the United States during the 1980s were slow to emerge and based on a laboriously growing mutual trust.
European Affairs Manager
FNF Expert Hub for Security Political Dialogue