Agreements That Ended the Cold War Are Disintegrating
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) was probably the Alliance’s most important and secretive institution during the Cold War. Notably, it worked out NATO members’ joint strategy and tactics for using non-strategic nuclear weapons in a possible all-European war with the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Such a confrontation seemed all too possible—and sometimes almost inevitable—during acute crisis situations that brought the Cold War opponents to the brink in 1949, 1956, 1962, 1973 and 1983. In the last of the aforementioned crises, tensions spiked as the United States deployed nuclear-tipped land-based cruise missiles as well as medium-range Pershing II ballistic missiles on the territory of several European NATO allies to counter the threat of the deployment of hundreds of Soviet SS-20 nuclear intermediary missiles known in Russia as Pioneer. The Soviets produced over 800 Pioneer missiles, and each carried a heavier payload than the Pershing IIs; but their U.S. counterparts were stealthier and much more accurate.
By 1987, the Soviet military/political leadership became so terrified of the so-called U.S. Euro-missile threat, that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with President Ronald Regan’s “zero option” to scrap all U.S. and Russian intermediary missiles. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed that same year and ratified and implemented. The Cold War ended soon thereafter, and with it—the Soviet Union. All land-based shorter-range nuclear weapons not covered by the INF, like nuclear artillery shells, were withdrawn. A small number of U.S. nuclear bombs remained stockpiled in Europe as a token of Washington’s commitment to defend the continent; but for almost 30 years, no one was seriously prepared to use them in anger, and an all-European war seemed virtually impossible. NATO’s NPG continued to gather for meetings; yet, this increasingly seemed out of step with reality. That is, until this week, when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told journalists the NPG will gather in Brussels at the defense ministerial level to discuss a possible joint response to the deployment of Russian missiles in defiance of the 1987 treaty (Interfax, October 2).
According to Stoltenberg, the U.S. and other allied countries have provided ample evidence of Russia violating the INF. The Russian military admitted to deploying the 9M729 Novator land-based cruise missile (nicknamed the SSC-8 in the West), although the Russians insist the Novator has a range of less than 500 kilometers, thus making it treaty compliant. The West disagrees and is demanding Russia comply with the INF and scrap the Novator or face inevitable countermeasures. The Western response could include the development and deployment of a new generation of U.S. Euro-missiles. No one wants a new arms race, NATO officials have repeatedly said, but some response is pending. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told journalists in Brussels that the Russian violation of the INF has been proven; Washington will ask its allies to help force Russia to rescind and comply. Otherwise, the U.S. may develop and deploy new capabilities to deter and “take out” the violating missiles. Her statement seemed to imply the possibility of preemptive strikes, which the U.S. ambassador later somewhat walked back, clarifying that she only meant Russia must comply with the INF or face the same class of weapons being deployed in the West (Militarynews.ru, October 2).
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told journalists in Brussels the NATO NPG intensely discussed Russia’s “blatant violation” of the INF. Mattis supported Hutchison’s comments but refused to go into detail on what the U.S. response would entail if the alleged Russian INF Treaty violations continue. According to Mattis, all U.S. allies agreed that Russia had violated the INF. He declared that he would report this situation and all possible responses to the White House. Russia must stop its cavalier attitude, Mattis insisted (Interfax, October 4).
Moscow angrily rejected the accusations of having violated the INF and in turn accused the West of violating the treaty. Last December, President Vladimir Putin told the media, “Russia will never unilaterally abandon any treaty,” but the U.S. has already “factually abandoned” the INF by building an essentially dual-use missile base in Romania: capable of launching both missile-defense interceptors and intermediate-range offensive missiles (RIA Novosti, December 14, 2017). Putin has previously denounced the INF as “one-sided.” Moreover, he has threatened, “Our response will be immediate and reciprocal” if the INF collapses because of U.S. actions (Kremlin.ru, October 19, 2017). The Kremlin apparently believes the deployment of a limited number of the 9M729 Novator missiles is a fair response to the deployment of U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense interceptors in Romania and Poland. Russia will not withdraw anything without reciprocal U.S. actions to close these missile-defense bases. In the Kremlin’s view, the Aegis Ashore bases could be used to destroy strategic targets and possibly physically eliminate Putin and other top Russian military/political leaders in a surprise first strike (see EDM, May 12, 2016).
The two sides seem to be on a collision course. The Russian military appears to be intensifying the standoff with the West along various fronts, balancing on the brink of an actual confrontation. The INF may be collapsing, and the present New START arms control treaty is also under threat. The semiofficial news agency Interfax recently reported, quoting “an informed source,” that Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers will be re-equipped with in-flight refueling capabilities. The Backfire was a major sticking point in previous arms control negotiations between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. insisted they are strategic assets and must be included in limitation levels, while Moscow refused. A compromise was eventually reached to remove the Backfire’s in-flight refueling capability to limit their range; hence, they are presently not included in START limitations. But with their aerial refueling equipment reinstalled, the renovated Backfire will have a range “the same as strategic bombers.” Russia officially has 100 Backfires (Militarynews.ru, October 3).
If the Backfire problem once again becomes a point of contention on how to count strategic assets, the prospects of prolonging the New START treaty, which terminates in 2021, are dim. All arms control as it was known since the 1970s could collapse into a nuclear free for all. Last March, Putin promoted an array of new nuclear superweapons during his annual address to parliament, insisting Russia has already achieved full military superiority and overtaken the mighty U.S. (see EDM, March 1, 8). Could Russia’s present “cavalier attitude,” the rash actions of Russian military intelligence (GRU), and the seemingly open disregard of previous arms control agreements be the result of Moscow pressing its presumed advantage, daring the West to acknowledge and fall back?
Dr. Pavel E. Felgenhauer is a Moscow-based defense analyst and columnist for Novaya Gazeta as well as a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He served as senior research officer in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, from where he received his Ph.D. Dr. Felgenhauer has published widely on Russian foreign and defense policies, military doctrine, arms trade and the military-industrial complex.
This article appeared originally at The Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.