NATO-Russia Council fails to bridge divide over INF Treaty

Time is running out to save the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), a cornerstone of transatlantic security. After a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) on 5 July, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, "We have not seen any signs of a breakthrough", adding "We must prepare for a world without INF, which will be less stable".

This was the second meeting of the NRC this year—the January meeting failed to reach a compromise despite Moscow’s offer to allow the United States to inspect the disputed missile—and was held at the level of ambassadors with Jens Stoltenberg as chair. Russia was represented by Acting Permanent Representative to NATO Yuri Gorlach. NRC meetings at the level of ambassadors and military representatives used to be held at least once a month, but in April 2014 (following Russia’s annexation of Crimea) NATO suspended all practical and military cooperation with Russia, but left NRC channels of communication at the ambassadorial and higher levels open. In 2018, the NRC held two meetings at the ambassadorial level in May and October, with the latter taking place after Washington announced its plans to leave the INF Treaty.

In addition to discussing the INF Treaty, this latest NRC meeting also addressed the security situation in eastern Ukraine, including the lack of progress on the Minsk Agreements and the tensions in and around the Sea of Azov. Finally, the agenda also included transparency and risk reduction issues, with both sides exchanging briefings on upcoming exercises. On the INF Treaty and Ukraine, however, NATO and Russia continue to have fundamental differences.

Allegations of treaty violations on both sides

The suspension of the INF Treaty seemingly dominated the meeting. Russia has been refusing to destroy a medium-range Novator 9M729 cruise missile that the US and NATO insists violates the INF Treaty. Moscow says that it is fully compliant with the INF Treaty, which was negotiated by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and eliminated all US and Russian missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.

Since 2014, the United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty, and Washington imposed sanctions intended to pressure Russia into compliance. Russia denies violating the treaty but accuses Washington of doing so with a missile defence system—notably, Aegis Ashore radar and interceptor sites—deployed in Romania in 2016 and due to be added in Poland in 2020. In October 2018 the United States signalled that it would be pulling out of the agreement and two months later set an ultimatum for Russia demanding that it destroy the 9M729 cruise missiles. On 1 February, the United States announced that it was beginning the official procedure of leaving the treaty. The procedure takes six months, and so, on 2 August the treaty will be no longer in effect. In March, Russia also suspended its participation in the treaty “until the US ends its violations of the treaty or until it terminates”. (For the official Russian viewpoint on the INF Treaty and US accusations, see this briefing by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergey Ryabkov, dated 26 November 2018). The demise of the INF Treaty may well lead to a new arms race.

NATO defence ministers considering options

At the NATO defence ministers meeting earlier in June, the alliance discussed measures that it would take after the INF Treaty’s demise. While the exact nature of those measures was not disclosed, the Secretary General pledged that no new land-based nuclear missiles would be deployed on NATO soil. While this left open the possibility that NATO countries might increase the number of sea-and air-based nuclear warheads in Europe, the more likely options in the first instance include more exercises, using conventional weapons, as well as improving intelligence, surveillance and air defences.

According to a report in the New York Times, NATO military officials are also exploring the possibility of upgrading their missile defences to make them capable of shooting down the newly deployed Russian cruise missiles. However, any change to the stated mission of NATO’s current missile defence system—which officials have always argued is aimed at threats from outside the region, like Iran—would be controversial and further antagonise Russia. “It would be a point of no return with the Russians,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official, adding “It would be a real escalation”. NATO’s chief spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, denied that any studies of the feasibility of upgrading the ballistic missile defences were underway. She said the alliance had repeatedly made clear that the existing system “is neither designed nor directed against Russia”.

When Jens Stoltenberg was asked by a Russian journalist (during the post-NRC meeting press briefing) if there were any steps that that the US could take to save the treaty, or if any compromise was possible, he repeated the standard US/NATO mantra that “there is only one reason why this treaty is now in jeopardy and that is the ongoing Russian violation of the treaty. And since the treaty is not functioning, if it is only respected by one side, all Allies have clearly stated that Russia has to come back into compliance, that Russia is violating the treaty and all Allies also support the US decision to start the withdrawal process”.

Can the treaty still be saved?

While Stoltenberg claims that “our focus is still on saving the treaty”, this is belied by his hard-line stance and lack of any willingness to seek a compromise. While it is important to uphold the credibility of arms control and to respond to allegations of treaty violations, in this case the allegations (by both sides) are difficult to evaluate, not least because the inspection regime for verifying INF commitments ceased in 2001. In particular, independently verified technical details about the Russian missile at the centre of the allegations remain thin on the ground. Nonetheless, based on intelligence from multiple allied agencies, NATO countries have forged a consensus that the new Russian nuclear-capable cruise missiles pose a credible threat.

Clearly, this ratcheting up of nuclear weapons competition has origins in both Washington and Moscow, but the myopic view from NATO headquarters in Brussels does not see it that way. Thus, a treaty that was a milestone in ending the Cold War and building a degree of confidence and trust between the opposing sides will end in a few weeks. Its demise will be a huge set back to arms control, risks undermining the overall architecture which controls nuclear weapons and raises the risk of a new nuclear arms race.

It still doesn’t have to be like this. As Pierce Corden, a former official in the US State Department writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for the United States and the Russian Federation to avoid withdrawal from the INF Treaty on 2 August, "both parties must resolve claims that the other is in noncompliance". He suggests a path forward might begin with Presidents Trump and Putin suspending the 2 August withdrawal and pursuing discussions to agree to on-site inspections of both the 9M729 cruise missile and the Aegis Ashore installations. This might be followed by a joint US-Russian proposal for a new agreement involving China and potentially the other nuclear-armed states to put limits on their nuclear weapon systems. The objective would be a declared ceiling on the systems of each participating state. If the NATO Secretary General is truly focused on saving the INF Treaty then he should be pulling out all the stops to move in that direction.