The uncertain future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was the dominating topic of the latest NATO Foreign Minister Meeting in Brussels, 4-5 December. In a press briefing before the meeting, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the treaty has successfully eliminated an entire category of weapons, but that, “it has been put in jeopardy by Russia.” He noted that Russia has produced and deployed a new ground-based cruise missile system, the so-called 9M729 (or SSC-8 in NATO terminology), which violates the INF Treaty, signed in 1987.
The assembled Foreign Ministers therefore addressed this issue in a statement, saying that, “Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the INF Treaty,” thus sending a strong political message to Moscow. “We call on Russia to return urgently to full and verifiable compliance. It is now up to Russia to preserve the INF Treaty.”
Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty erodes the foundations of arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, which are key elements of Atlantic security.
NATO allies – the US in particular – have repeatedly raised their concerns with the Russian Federation. Russia, however, has responded with denials and obfuscation. As a matter of fact, Russia has only recently acknowledged the existence of the new missile system, but without providing the necessary transparency or explanation. Since the new ground-launched missile falls within the banned range of 500-5,500 km, US President Donald Trump indicated in October 2018 that his administration might consider withdrawal from the treaty.
It was therefore no surprise that US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced in Brussels that Russia has 60 days to comply with the provisions of the INF Treaty. Russian reaction was immediate: President Vladimir Putin rejected all accusations, saying that the Western nations have not presented any convincing evidence, as usual. Russia says it is against termination of the treaty but, should it happen, it will react accordingly.
The alleged violation of the INF Treaty has caused political debate in 2018. In a recent letter to President Trump, three Democratic Senators (Mark Warner, Jack Reed and Bob Menendez), warned that unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty would be a, “political and geostrategic gift to Russia,” because it could stimulate Russia to continue the deployment of its missiles without any contractual constraints.
No doubt the INF Treaty will remain high on the political agenda in 2019. Many politicians in Europe are concerned about a potential arms race and consider it would be a clear setback if the treaty were to be cancelled after intensive transatlantic discussions – a treaty that has abolished a whole category of nuclear missiles on both sides for more than 30 years.
Dr Theodor Benien