In 1977, the Soviet Union deployed in its western territories the SS-20 Saber, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead and the capacity to reach Western Europe. The move precipitated an arms race and arms control negotiations, culminating in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States.
European nations have reaped the benefits of this treaty. However, Europe could soon be in the middle of a new arms race if the INF Treaty collapses, as the U.S. President Donald Trump has given a two-month withdrawal notice. If Europe cannot convince the United States to remain in the INF Treaty or Russia to comply, then it will need to unify around arms control, threading the needle of security guarantees between those who would invite an arms race and those desperately wanting to avoid it.
The INF Treaty required the Soviet Union and the United States to eliminate and abstain from building nuclear and conventional ground-launched cruise, ballistic missiles, and launchers with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometers. Therefore, NATO forces and major European population centers were kept out of range of nuclear missiles. Currently, the United States accuses Russia of violating the treaty by building and deploying an intermediate-range missile, the 9M729, within range of Europe. Russia, in turn, alleges that the United States is in violation of the treaty by deploying in Europe the sea and land-based, NATO-operated Aegis missile defense system which it claims is capable of firing offensive missiles into Russia. Finally, Donald Trump himself has cited China’s large stockpile of intermediate-range missiles as significant motivation for abandoning the treaty; in other words, continued adherence to the treaty would prevent the United States from building up its own stockpile to compete directly with China.
European officials continue to heavily lobby the United States to keep the treaty alive, with only two months left to do so. One possible approach is a substantially narrowed version of the treaty, limited to Continental Europe. This would allow Russia and the United States to rectify their armaments imbalance with China without escalating an arms race in Europe. However, this approach is unlikely as it ignores grievances central to the treaty’s dissolution.
Prior to Trump’s announcement, the United States had been unsuccessful in engaging Russia on the 9M729. At the same time, Russia has insisted the European missile defense system be on the negotiating block. Yet, the United States has adamantly refused, stating that the missile defense system is intended for Iranian ballistic missiles rather than Russian ones. For a Europe-only treaty to work, both the United States and Russia would need to reduce or eliminate the questioned weapons systems, a step neither appears willing to consider.
If the end of the treaty seems inevitable, then an immediate buildup of the now prohibited arms will be unavoidable. In the short term, if allegations against Russia hold true, then it will have a substantial head start as it will have already researched, developed, and deployed intermediate-range missiles, while the Trump administration will need Congressional approval to even begin researching INF capabilities. This leaves Europe protected by the partially completed European missile defense system designed to intercept ballistic missiles, not necessarily intermediate-range cruise missiles.
In time, the United States will want to counter any Russian INF missiles with nuclear missiles of its own, ostensibly deployed in Europe. This would, however, be a practical improbability as any deployment automatically makes the host a first strike target while fueling what many European nations view as an avoidable arms race. Further, the prospect of fielding additional U.S. nuclear systems throughout Europe will place considerable strain on the NATO alliance. Germany will almost certainly refuse consideration for more nuclear weapons while former Warsaw Pact nations like Poland and Romania could be more amenable.
European and U.S. security interests were indivisible with the signing of the 1987 INF Treaty; if they continue to diverge, however, Europe has another avenue to pursue absent the INF Treaty. The EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is an initiative begun last year to integrate the militaries of EU members. While intended as a complement to NATO forces, PESCO began as the United States’ commitment to NATO came into question.
To sidestep nuclear escalation, EU members should avidly pursue PESCO and collaboration with NATO (the majority of Europe is represented between the two organizations), bolstering the continent’s security independence from the United States. Europe needs to pursue a footing where it can negotiate nuclear arms control with Russia without relying on the United States.
This is, admittedly, a long shot. It would likely require the politically impossible task of dismantling NATO’s missile defense system. However, if and when the treaty falls apart, Europe will need to hedge against a non-committal United States and an increasingly aggressive Russia. Europe will find itself in tension between those committed to a diplomatic solution and those willing to risk escalation in the name of deterrence. It will be crucial to contain disunity while reaffirming commitment to nuclear arms control and support for NATO.