What Comes after a U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty? The Case for a NATO Strategy

In 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the “Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles” or the INF Treaty. The treaty bans and provides for the destruction of all ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers. The INF Treaty was a welcome and decisive achievement for arms control and arms reduction at a time of heightened tension in Europe, and it has remained a key pillar for the European security architecture.

But that era could be coming to an end with today’s announcement by the United States that it will begin the formal process to withdraw from the INF Treaty unless Russia returns to compliance with its treaty obligations within 60 days. If Russia does not return to compliance, the United States would formally initiate its withdrawal notification, and in six months, the United States would then withdraw from the treaty.

Over the last few years, the United States had increasingly voiced concerns over Russian non-compliance with the INF Treaty, both in diplomatic talks with Russia and Allies as well as publicly. The U.S. government made clear in October at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Defense Ministerial that it would not let Russian non-compliance with treaty obligations go unanswered indefinitely. President Trump also foreshadowed today’s announcement on October 20 by publicly suggesting that the United States would “terminate” and “pull out” of the agreement. But NATO Allies were not informed in advance about this announcement. Rather than keeping the public focus on Russia’s treaty violations, the October “soft” announcement left many questioning another U.S. unilateral withdrawal from a treaty, the wisdom of the decision, the political and diplomatic objectives underlying the announcement, and the consequences for strategic stability.

While many Allies agreed with the U.S. assessment in private, few were willing to join the United States in publicly calling out Russia on the violations until recently. This was likely due to a desire for ironclad intelligence on the breach; reluctance to contribute to upending a treaty that many Europeans see as central to their own security; and potentially upsetting a deterrence and dialogue approach with Russia that NATO has worked hard to maintain.

Today’s meeting of NATO foreign ministers marked an important evolution in this discussion. Allies have unambiguously stated that Russia is in material breach of the treaty and that it is Moscow’s responsibility to preserve it by returning to compliance.

As it seems unlikely at this point that Russia will demonstrate any willingness to do so within the next 60 days, it is important, looking forward, to discuss what strategy the United States and NATO Allies could adopt in a post-INF Treaty world in terms of European security writ large and on military planning, posture, and arms control vis-á-vis Russia.

We argue that, while there is much uncertainty as to what comes next, the unity of NATO must remain the guiding principle for the United States and NATO allies.

The Importance of the INF Treaty to European Security Today

Although a bilateral accord between the United States and Russia (and formerly the Soviet Union), the INF Treaty directly impacts the security of non-signatory countries, particularly European NATO Allies and partners. Despite Russian violations, the treaty is viewed as an essential pillar of European security by European governments, and the historical importance of the treaty still shapes attitudes among European politicians’ and citizens’ attitudes and actions regarding the INF Treaty today. Past is indeed prologue.

In the late 1970s, the development of the SS-20 “Saber” intermediate-range missiles enabled the Soviet Union to target every part of the European continent without threatening U.S. territory. While the United States too feared that SS-20 could be enhanced for intercontinental range, NATO Allies feared that the Soviet Union could use these systems against them without triggering a response from the United States (so-called decoupling), as Washington might consider the risk of escalation into a major nuclear confrontation too high.

Germany and France were particularly concerned by the “decoupling” of U.S. and European security interests. In the 1980s, German chancellor Schmidt and French president Mitterrand actively made the case for NATO to deploy similar systems in response that led to NATO's dual-track approach, which comprised both the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe (Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles) and an offer to negotiate an arms-control agreement with the Soviet Union over these systems. The INF Treaty eventually put an end to this crisis in a way that clearly benefitted the United States and its forces in Europe and European countries: the military threat from Soviet missiles was suppressed, and NATO demonstrated its unity and the indivisibility of its members’ security interests.

Today, the utility of the treaty is called into question by Russian breach of the INF Treaty. New developments in weapon technologies and the fact that the treaty does not factor in China have also been identified as questioning its relevance. While all of this may be valid, one of the treaty’s essential functions has not gone out of date, namely dispersing any doubt about a decoupling of U.S. and European security interests in Europe.

There are real fears about what could happen to European security if U.S. and NATO Allies’ views no longer aligned. Again, history plays an important role as many Europeans vividly remember the excruciating discussions of the 1970s and 1980s over the stationing of nuclear weapons in Europe and would not welcome a re-enactment of the debate under the new circumstances. Some politicians and parties may attempt, others fear, to use the INF withdrawal to challenge NATO’s nuclear posture to their own political advantage even if to the detriment of NATO unity.

Europeans also value the INF Treaty because of its significance as a major arms control achievement. For the first time, an entire class of missiles was made illegal and eliminated—at least between the two major nuclear powers at the time. To Europeans, the treaty was not only important for its specific content but because it reinforces the logic of arms control, which seeks to reduce risks of escalation and contain great power competition by means of an international treaty and verifiable implementation. To Europeans, the INF Treaty is an essential and practical example of how a rules-based security architecture can reduce the risk of conflict and creates security and transparency, provided of course, that its mutual obligations are kept.

For many European countries, arms control is engrained in the political DNA of decisionmakers and the public alike. Indeed, there are also important voices in the U.S. Congress who expect NATO to continue to balance nuclear deterrence with arms control. In some European public opinions, this view is compounded with deep skepticism of nuclear weapons, and the ingrained memory of the Cold War arms race, which included massive public protests against the deployment of nuclear weapons on European soil. These highly emotive reactions signal the difficulty any discussion of a post-INF scenario may entail again today.

Possible Political and Military Implications of a U.S. Withdrawal

For Russia, an end to the INF Treaty will make it legally possible to openly develop and deploy significant numbers of intermediate-range missiles. Russia will likely continue to assign blame for the treaty’s failure to the United States for its unilateral withdrawal.

On a global level, the military implications are more difficult to assess. Given Chinese advancements in weapons technology and build-up of its arsenals, freeing itself of INF Treaty obligations could prove advantageous for the United States vis-à-vis China. But whatever form of strategic balance the United States strives for vis-à-vis China, European Allies, and possibly even Russia, could be helpful to the United States, diplomatically and militarily, in compelling China to join in any sort of arms control negotiation. To be sure, how the United States and NATO navigate a post-INF scenario will send a signal to China on either the attractiveness and reliability of bilateral arms control agreements or their futility.

Although deploying ground-launched intermediate-range missiles in Europe could provide some military advantages for NATO, as these systems are more survivable and sustainable than air or sea-based missiles (and cheaper), there has been no indication that the United States will take this course, which would likely spark very divisive discussions among Allies. It is also unclear how much of a difference such missiles would make in the balance of forces in Europe, given the developments in air- and sea-based systems, which are available to NATO military planners today.

Alternatively, the United States and NATO could focus on ensuring the utmost credibility of the Alliance’s nuclear posture, which, within the framework of U.S. modernization efforts, will cover modernization of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems currently deployed in Europe. It should also be reaffirmed that the independent nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France also contribute to Alliance security. Such steps could become much more difficult post U.S. withdrawal from the INF and could impact NATO’s nuclear policy and U.S. weapons deployment. Indeed, NATO will face important—and politically sensitive—decisions regarding the deployment of U.S. nuclear capabilities in Europe, as modernized B61 warheads are meant to replace the older version. This decision will also require complete NATO unity, and determination of all Allies concerned to support the credibility of NATO’s nuclear posture.

What Allies Can and Should Do

NATO’s strong statement at the December 4-5 NATO Foreign Ministerial, reiterating the indivisibility of Euro-Atlantic security, is a significant first step in asserting that Alliance unity will remain the center of gravity for NATO in any post-INF Treaty scenario.

Next, the United States and European Allies should set in motion a vigorous and detailed process for discussing a common strategy which should include:

  • A discussion in the NATO Defense Policy and Planning Committee on the impact of new Russian missiles for NATO’s posture, and possible conventional options to address this;
  • A conversation among Allies on a roadmap for maintaining existing arms control agreements like New START and considering new arms control and arms reduction regimes, which would enhance common U.S. and European security, assuming that Russia is willing to be a reliable and trustworthy partner in this effort; and
  • Longer term, working with interested Allies to develop a shared assessment of capability requirements to uphold strategic stability in Asia.

These steps need to be accompanied by serious efforts to inform and educate U.S. and European publics about the issues at hand and the measures being considered. Losing or leaving behind citizens on nuclear issues and strategic security will prove detrimental to finding and implementing solutions and therefore to strengthening NATO unity and likely open new entry points for disinformation of all sorts.

Over the next few months, it is essential that Allies work together to reinforce cohesion to alleviate the danger of a widening political gap over NATO’s nuclear policy and to demonstrate that unity is NATO’s center of gravity. The NATO foreign ministers this week made a good start by unanimously denouncing the Russian violation and underlining Russia’s responsibility to preserve the INF Treaty. But more difficult and just as important work lies ahead to prepare NATO for a possible post-INF era, while preserving Alliance unity.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Ricklef Beutin and Quentin Lopinot are visiting fellows in the CSIS Europe Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus

Ricklef Beutin

Quentin Lopinot