A few European NATO allies mount ‘last ditch’ defence of INF Treaty

29 October 2018

According to a Reuters article, citing unnamed diplomats, some European members of NATO last week urged the United States to try to bring Russia back into compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty rather than withdraw from it.

The issue was discussed at a closed-door meeting of ambassadors in a session of the North Atlantic Council (NAC)— NATO’s highest decision-making body—at its headquarters in Brussels on the 25 October. NATO’s own bland, one paragraph statement on the meeting gave no indication of what was discussed, other than it was “an opportunity for allies to share views” on the treaty, and to “assess the implications of Russia’s destabilising behaviour on our security”. The statement ends by stating that “NATO allies will continue to consult on this important issue”, but without any indication of the purpose of such consultations or of the degree of disagreement between allies on the way forward. US reporting of the issue cites US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as suggesting that the discussions within NATO would reach some kind of "culminating point" at the December NATO meeting of defence ministers.

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by the Soviet Union and the United States, obliged the two sides to destroy their stocks of ground-based short and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. The treaty led to the elimination of nearly 2,700 ballistic and cruise missiles by mid-1991. European opinion on the US decision to withdraw from the treaty is clearly divided, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas calling the decision “regrettable”, while the UK backed the decision.

During the NAC meeting, the NATO ambassadors were briefed by Pentagon, US State Department and US National Security Council officials on President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the INF Treaty—a decision that senior US official John Bolton relayed to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 22 October. According to Reuters, the German ambassador and other unnamed European allies called for a final effort on Washington’s part to convince Moscow to stop the alleged violations, or possibly to renegotiate the treaty to include China.

“Allies want to see a last-ditch effort to avoid a US withdrawal,” one NATO diplomat is cited as saying, while another said, “Nobody takes issue with Russia’s violation of the treaty, but a withdrawal would make it easy for Moscow to blame us for the end of this landmark agreement”. During a press conference on the 24 October, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg laid the blame on Russia for violating the treaty by developing the SSC-8, a land-based, intermediate-range cruise missile which also has the name of Novator 9M729.

Russia denies any such violations and points to possible US violations of the treaty with its missile defence installations in Romania and Poland. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that the 9M729 missiles correspond to Russia's obligations under the INF Treaty and have not been upgraded and tested for the prohibited range. Moscow has pointed out that the United States has provided no proof that Russia has violated the treaty by deploying the missiles.

Most European NATO member states see the INF treaty as a key pillar of arms control and, while accepting that Moscow is violating it by developing new weapons, are concerned its collapse could lead to a new arms race with possibly a new generation of US nuclear missiles stationed in Europe. Some NATO allies, including Belgium and the Netherlands, which already host US nuclear weapons under NATO’s nuclear sharing commitments, apparently warned during the NAC meeting of a public outcry if the United States were to try to install medium-range nuclear weapons on their territory again. Stoltenberg said during his press conference a day earlier that he did not think this would be likely. “We don’t want a new Cold War, we don’t want a new arms race and therefore I don’t foresee that allies will deploy more nuclear weapons in Europe as a response to the new Russian missile”, he said.

Finally, according to the Reuters report, diplomats said that US officials thought it might be possible to delay the formal US withdrawal from the treaty until after a planned meeting between Putin and Trump in Paris on the 11 November. The treaty foresees a six-month notification period for any withdrawal, also potentially giving Washington time to negotiate with Moscow before finally pulling out.

The NATO-Russia Council is due to meet on the 31 October and it seems likely that the INF Treaty will be among the issues discussed there, as well as at the 14th Annual NATO Conference on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in Reykjavik, Iceland, which started today. Senior experts from more than 50 countries and organizations are expected to discuss the state of global arms control treaties at the two-day conference.

Further reading:

Dan Smith, The crumbling architecture of arms control, SIPRI Commentary, 23 October 2018

Simon Tisdall, Trump is creating a nuclear threat worse than the cold war, The Guardian, 23 October 2018

James Cameron, The Impending Demise of the INF Treaty: Britain Has a Job on Its Hands, RUSI Commentary, 22 October 2018