2. Europe under the gun
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 27/12/2018
France Germany Poland
* Arms control treaties in Europe is becoming increasingly apparent at the same time and lack of transparency is part of its competitive advantage.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty forbids the production and possession of any land-based delivery system with a range of 500-5,500km.
- The agreement does not apply to sea- and air-based delivery systems such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles.
- Only the Soviet Union and the United States have officially signed (and Moscow has accepted Russia’s legal obligations under) the treaty, but Germany, France, and the United Kingdom unilaterally abide by it.
Washington devised the treaty to prevent Moscow from using nuclear blackmail against isolated European states without posing a direct threat to the US homeland. Because intermediate-range nuclear missiles were too powerful to serve as “tactical” or battlefield weapons, the Europeans feared the Soviet Union would use them as a pre-crisis tool to split the alliance.
The Soviets only agreed to sign the INF Treaty and dismantle their vast arsenal of intermediate-range nuclear missiles because they feared US deployments of the Pershing II missile in Europe.
The Pershing II’s manoeuvrable, guided re-entry vehicle lent it a precision that was unique among ballistic missiles of the time. Soviet military planners thought this would enable the US to knock out Moscow’s political and military leadership, as well as its key nuclear weapons facilities, with little prior warning – thereby deciding the outcome of a war in its first few minutes. Today, in contrast, Moscow has little to fear from America’s capabilities in this area.
Since the early 2010s, Russia has circumvented the INF Treaty through the deployment of dual-use Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, which have a range of roughly 2,500km, on small corvettes and gunboats. Russia can move these littoral combatants through inland waterways and lakes, placing them beyond the direct sight of the US Navy and making them difficult for NATO to detect. This means that during, for example, an escalating crisis in the Baltic region, Russia could threaten Berlin, Paris, and London using vessels in the port of Kronstadt or the rivers around St Petersburg.
Russia then appeared to fully violate the INF Treaty, mounting the launch tube of a Kalibr-NK cruise missile on a mobile, land-based Iskander launcher. To retain plausible deniability, Moscow argues that the cruise missile fired from these launch tubes has a shorter range than the sea-launched Kalibr. As the Kalibr launch tube can fire several kinds of missile, this might be true. Yet Moscow has not demonstrated how its land-based launcher differs from the naval variant.
Russia also accused the US of having violated the INF treaty first, through the deployment of drones. This argument can be dismissed out of hand, as drones are remotely controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles that, if subject to regulations, would constitute combat aircraft under the CFE Treaty. Russia’s argument that US missile-defence sites in Poland and Romania could harbour Tomahawk cruise missiles is more difficult to dismiss.
- Indeed, these sites’ Mark 41 Vertical Launch System can fire the Tomahawk, which has a range of around 1,600km. But inspections could easily verify which missile was loaded, while the fact that the sites are stationary makes it near-impossible to conceal any changes to them.
- The Polish government put inspections and confidence-building measures on the table when negotiating the agreement to host its missile-defence site – only for Russia to reject them as insufficient. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Russian leaders made their accusations against the US sincerely, so why try to prove them wrong?
Reciprocal inspections could reduce mutual distrust and resolve the issue. But they would unveil more about Russia’s capabilities than America’s. For instance, there is no nuclear-capable Tomahawk. And, as Iskander systems are mobile, verifying their deployment and capabilities would mean allowing inspectors to enter multiple currently inaccessible sites.
Because these systems are nuclear-capable, such inspections would grant the West some insight into Russia’s non-strategic nuclear capabilities. (Non-strategic weapons are those with a range of less than 5,500km.)
While Russia’s approach to the INF Treaty raises serious compliance issues, Washington’s pending unilateral withdrawal from the agreement will only make matters worse.
- Firstly, it would allow Russia to use its vast territory to deploy and hide various intermediate-range systems – which could be used to selectively blackmail European states during a crisis, or to launch pre-emptive strikes deep into western Europe during a war. The European Union could be held hostage to Russian escalation control.
- Secondly, the collapse of the treaty would spark a debate on countermeasures within NATO that alliance members are ill-prepared to lead. In all western European countries aside from France, the cold war culture of defence has vanished, as has elites’ ability to communicate the procedures, postures, and signalling of nuclear deterrence.
Washington’s pending unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty will put Europe in a very difficult spot. For many Europeans, the US has cancelled a treaty they see as essential to their security, without seriously attempting to arm-wrestle Russia into compliance. The US made no push to modernise NATO’s integrated air defences in a way that would pose a greater obstacle to Russian cruise missiles. Nor did it consult with its NATO allies. Russia will be free to develop and deploy both the RS-26 Rubesh and the Iskander-K without any treaty constraints, and to threaten European states with them. Meanwhile, the West has no equivalent capability. Thus, the withdrawal is a diplomatic and strategic disaster in the making.
The OSCE’s Structured Dialogue and deconfliction
Initiated at a ministerial summit in Hamburg in 2016, the OSCE’s Structured Dialogue is designed to cover mutual security concerns, issues involving the international rules-based order, threat perceptions, and risk-reduction mechanisms. Rather than attempting to create a major new treaty similar to the CFE, the dialogue currently focuses on risk reduction.
It is hard to judge the progress of the initiative – as reflected in the mixed views of it among European officials. Russia seems comfortable with its current position of strength and lack of transparency, while European states are uncomfortable with it. Although the German OSCE chair pushed for compliance with the Vienna Document in 2016, the subsequent Austrian chair did not follow up on this. The moment German pressure eased, Russian complacency over the document returned.
For Moscow, criticism of the Russian government from any of these entities clearly signals that they are part of a Western plot. In essence, Russia perceives itself to be at war with the West, meaning that its actions are a justified response to Western aggression. The most high-profile aspect of this response is Russia’s information warfare campaign against the West.
Another key aspect of Russia’s approach to dealing with the West is its projection of military power and its intimidation through latent military force. Military operations against the West, as rehearsed in Zapad exercises, rely on speed and surprise rather than brute force and numbers.
They are designed to deliver a strategic shock to the West, stun its political systems, and establish facts on the ground before the West can bring its superior military power to bear. Judging by its mobilisation and deployment on Ukraine’s borders, the Russian military can deploy a corps-sized formation – comprising one airborne division; several regiments of special forces; electronic-warfare troops; artillery; air-defence systems; some armoured formations, up to brigade size; around three or four fighter wings; and littoral naval assets – within seven days, and an armoured manoeuvre army roughly three times the size within a month or so.
This is considerably faster than NATO could react. The alliance’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force – comprising roughly 5,000 troops – is ready to deploy within five days, while the 45,000-strong NATO Response Force is ready to deploy within 30 days.
The deployment process would take more than a week, depending on where the forces were generated. American reinforcements would have to be airlifted across the Atlantic, a procedure that takes several months. European armies would be too small, too ill-equipped, or (like the Bundeswehr) in too dismal a state of readiness to decisively change the balance of military power.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu