Russia Approaches a Post-INF Arms Race in Europe With Caution

5 MINS READSep 2, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
This photo shows a Russian 9M729 missile
(SERGEI BOBLEV/TASS via Getty Images)

The 9M729 missile demonstrated after a briefing for military attaches and international media by the Russian Defence Ministry at the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre in Kubinka, Moscow Region, on the 9M729 missile system; Russia does not recognize the USA's unilateral decision to quit the 1987 INF disarmament treaty (the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty). Sergei Bobylev/TASS (Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images)

  • Land-based intermediate-range missiles could make a comeback in Europe in significant numbers, though this is unlikely in the short term.
  • Russia will likely decide that deploying such missiles, and so addressing NATO's advantage in air power and ballistic missile defenses, would outweigh a reciprocal U.S. deployment of those weapons in Europe.
  • Having largely succeeded at deflecting blame for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty's collapse onto the United States, Moscow would work to maintain these perceptions as it builds up its missile arsenal.

With the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) officially dead, observers are watching to see whether the types of land-based missiles the treaty banned in Europe in the late 1980s will return to the Continent. The United States may have delivered the coup de grace to the treaty by withdrawing from it, but unlike in the Western Pacific, it has no immediate plans to deploy the formerly banned nuclear-capable missiles in Europe. Russia meanwhile has said it would only deploy its intermediate-range missiles within reach of Europe if U.S. intermediate missiles were deployed on the Continent first.

But even though each has indicated it won't take the initiative, either one might, in fact, do so — especially Russia. A Russian move would likely provoke a U.S. missile deployment in Europe, but Moscow could calculate that the cost of moving first would be less than the benefits it could gain. These include countering NATO's air power and ballistic missile defense advantage and stirring up divisions among NATO allies by generating European opposition to a reciprocal U.S. deployment.

The Big Picture

With the demise of INF, the next moves by the United States and Russia to develop, then deploy, land-based intermediate-range missiles in Europe will be a key aspect of the broader arms race between the great powers.

Actions vs. Words

While Moscow might have vehemently protested the U.S. withdrawal from INF, it never much liked the treaty itself. The growing strength of China's military — including its growing arsenal of land-based intermediate-range missiles, since it was never a party to INF — has worried Moscow, which now must consider how it would deal with a Chinese threat if it ever materializes. NATO's overall superiority in air power has left land-based medium- and intermediate-range missiles as an attractive counter for Russia. For this reason, Russia had already secretly violated the treaty by developing, and even fielding limited numbers of, its 9M729 cruise missiles.

This map shows the possible ranges of intermediate-range missiles on both in Europe and in Russia.

Even so, Moscow has largely managed to shift the blame for the treaty's collapse onto Washington. The abrupt U.S. withdrawal without making much effort to negotiate regarding allegations of breaches by both sides has fueled perceptions that the United States is responsible for the INF's failure. U.S. allies, particularly those in Europe, have reacted with displeasure, fearful of becoming targets in a combat exchange of intermediate-range missiles. Moscow will continue to portray itself as reacting to U.S. aggression if it deploys intermediate missiles to maintain these perceptions. By doing so, Moscow hopes to minimize European anger at its deployments while driving a wedge between the United States and its allies.

A Delicate Expansion

As Russia denounces U.S. missile tests and accuses Washington of stationing launchers in Europe capable of firing intermediate-range missiles — such as the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense facilities being installed in Eastern Europe — it is likely to cautiously ramp up its own development and production of intermediate-range missiles. Already, Moscow has reportedly deployed a battalion of 9M729 cruise missiles near the town of Shuya, about 270 kilometers (168 miles) northeast of Moscow. If true, this means intermediate-range missiles can already strike NATO countries from Russia's Western Military District.

Just how open Europeans will be to U.S. deployments of intermediate-range missiles will vary significantly from country to country.

Recent U.S. land-based intermediate-range missile tests mean Moscow is in a better position in terms of public relations to acknowledge its own missile tests and speed the production of the 9M729 and other intermediate-range missiles. Russia will still, however, have to be careful regarding where it places future missile battalions. A single battalion of 9M729s in the Western Military District is unlikely to convince the Europeans that U.S. land-based intermediate-range missiles should be brought to the Continent. But if Russia significantly expands those deployments near its western borders, it would bolster the U.S. argument that the Russian moves require a Western response. Russia's geography would become a factor in this dynamic since its longer-range intermediate missiles could reach targets in NATO's eastern flank from a fairly broad swath of western Russia, even from just to the east of its Western Military District.

This map shows the ranges of various intermediate-range missile systems in Europe and Russia before the INF went into effect

Just how open Europeans would be to U.S. intermediate-range deployments will vary significantly from country to country. Some NATO countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, already within reach of Russia's shorter-range missile units — such as the Iskander — largely see the development of Russian intermediate missiles as an opportunity to attract a more robust U.S. military presence to their territories. But countries such as Germany and France will be wary of escalating the intermediate arms race, which could once again place their territories within range. Paris, and even more so Berlin, know that significant domestic political opposition would arise if U.S. intermediate-range missiles were to be deployed within their borders. During the 1980s, those U.S. deployments caused major protests in Western Europe. And this means Russia must strike a delicate balance between expanding its intermediate-range missile deployments with maintaining its propaganda advantage.

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