Editor's Note: This assessment is part of a series of analyses supporting Stratfor's upcoming 2019 Second-Quarter Forecast. These assessments are designed to provide more context and in-depth analysis on key developments over the next quarter.
The Cold War ended in Europe almost three decades ago, but many on the Continent are none too happy about the end to one of the last vestiges of that battle, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (and, subsequently, its Russian successor) imposed limits on the destructive nuclear strength that Moscow could train on Europe's NATO members, as well as the force with which the West could threaten Russia. But now that the United States has suspended the treaty, proliferation — as well as more instability in Europe — might be on the cards again.
On Feb. 1, the United States formally suspended the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after accusing Russia of violating the treaty by developing missiles with longer ranges than permitted by the treaty. In so doing, Washington — which is likely to completely withdraw from the deal — has delivered a significant blow to the framework to maintain control over strategic arms. The INF Treaty's looming demise comes amid the erosion of a series of Cold War-era arms treaties, due in part to technological developments and the great strides made by countries like China.
A Treaty for Europe
The INF Treaty was a bilateral commitment between the United States and Russia to limit ground-based missiles possessing a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers — a range that put all of Europe in peril but which posed no credible threat to either the United States or any of Russia east of the Urals. (That, by contrast, was the preserve of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.) The concern over this class of missiles first raised the alarm in Europe in the late 1970s, when Russia developed new nuclear missiles, the SS-20s, that governments perceived as a much greater threat to the nuclear balance in comparison to their less-capable predecessors. Moreover, the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) treaty, which imposed limits on the number of ICBMs that either the United States or Russia could maintain, did not cover the SS-20s. As a result, these intermediate-range missiles posed an additional nuclear threat almost exclusively to Europe — in addition to the ICBM force that Russia could deploy against both the United States and Europe. Europe's concerns, voiced in particular by West Germany, forced NATO into a dual strategy of increasing the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles in Europe as a deterrent and, at the same time, offering the Soviet Union a treaty to mutually limit the deployment of such weapon systems. The latter element of this strategy eventually led to the INF Treaty in 1987.
After the end of the Cold War and the emergence of other challenges, the INF Treaty gradually lost relevance, even becoming a burden for the United States and Russia. For reasons largely unrelated to the European theater, both actors challenged the treaty in a variety of ways, eventually leading to the United States' formal suspension of the treaty earlier this month. But beyond the INF Treaty itself, there has been a general erosion in the strategic arms stability framework since the turn of the century. In 2001, the United States announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, after which it further developed its own missile defense capabilities. In such an environment, there are now significant doubts about a possible extension to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which limits the number of warheads and delivery platforms the United States and Russia can maintain.
One of the reasons for the volatility in this strategic arms framework is technological advancement, which has resulted in the development of missile defense technologies or hypersonic glide vehicles, for instance. Another reason is a general redrawing of the global landscape when it comes to nuclear capabilities. The treaties in question solely included the United States and Russia due to their pre-eminent roles in the Cold War; since then, however, China has become a formidable nuclear power in its own right. It may lag far behind Russia and the United States in the total number of nuclear warheads in its inventory, but the country has made major gains in missile technology that could ultimately threaten Russia and the United States. Because it was never a signatory to the INF Treaty, China has been able to field as many intermediate-range missiles as it wishes. What's more, Beijing has never had any interest in negotiating a deal to scrap these missiles, as they provide China with an important means of defending its periphery. And, naturally, the United States and Russia have had little recourse to counter China's challenge with deterrents of their own, as doing so would have required either of them to ignore or scrap the INF Treaty at an earlier date.
A Changing Environment
In Europe, the situation has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War when the INF Treaty came into effect, but its collapse will still impact the Continent deeply. For starters, the dividing line between NATO and Russia and its allies has shifted about 1,000 kilometers to the east due to the Soviet Union's breakup and NATO's subsequent expansion. In addition, the two sides have not massed their armies along a dividing line as they did during the Cold War. Instead, the greatest concentration of forward-deployed troops are several brigade-sized units around the Baltic states and in Kaliningrad. Accordingly, there are fewer immediate Western military targets that might elicit Russian missile strikes in the event of an escalation.
Though Russia's larger strategic goal is ultimately to maintain a balance with China in terms of missile capabilities, it could divert some of its missiles toward Europe now that it is free to develop intermediate-range missiles. Already, the disagreements between the Kremlin and the West on the Continent have prompted Russia to flex its military capabilities; according to some reports, Russia has deployed several of the first missiles the country produced in violation of the INF Treaty, the 9M729 (also known by its NATO designation, SSC-8 "Screwdriver"), to its western border.
In terms of the nuclear balance in Europe, however, Russia is not fully unencumbered just because the INF Treaty has failed. Moscow is still bound by the New START agreement, which limits both the number of delivery platforms (ICBMs, heavy bombers) and the number of nuclear warheads that both sides can maintain in their inventories. So while Russia may be able to develop and field new intermediate-range missiles, it cannot arm them with nuclear warheads unless it reduces the number of such weapons it is using elsewhere in its strategic forces. New START meanwhile also grants both the United States and Russia extensive rights to inspect each other's nuclear arsenals, meaning Washington would likely spot any attempt by Moscow to deploy new intermediate-range missiles as part of its nuclear posturing in Europe.
This, of course, hinges on the continuation of the New START agreement. This treaty itself, just like the ABM and INF treaties before it, has come under considerable pressure. The current deal will expire in 2021, and attempts to negotiate a five-year extension as envisioned in the original treaty have proven unsuccessful so far. Unsurprisingly, the present standoff between the United States and Russia is not facilitating talks on an extension to New START or the creation of a follow-on treaty. And then there's the potential stumbling block of whether the Screwdriver missiles are, in fact, nuclear capable (Moscow, naturally, says they are not).
The collapse of New START would end any limits on the number of nuclear warheads Russia can maintain in its inventory, allowing Moscow to rapidly bolster its arsenal of nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles aimed at Europe at a time when it can also maintain its nuclear pressure on the United States through its ICBM arsenal. And even if New START doesn't collapse, Russia could redeploy its nuclear warheads through the development of new strategic arms technologies, such as the Russian "Avangard" hypersonic glide vehicle. That's because these new weapons systems — even when armed with mere conventional warheads — would have the capability of striking facilities that had previously only been pervious to nuclear strikes. As a result, Russia could conceivably replace a number of the nuclear warheads that it is currently training on U.S. nuclear missile silos with conventional hypersonic glide vehicles before redeploying the atomic weapons elsewhere, such as its intermediate-range missile arsenal — all while remaining faithful to New START.
As the security environment changes in Europe, many in the Continent's west are unlikely to be particularly receptive to the idea of hosting nuclear-armed missiles.
New Proliferation in Europe?
As the security environment changes in Europe, many in the Continent's west are unlikely to be particularly receptive to the idea of hosting nuclear-armed missiles, both because the prospect is electorally unpalatable and because it could make the region a bigger target for Moscow. NATO's newer members in Eastern Europe, however, are much more concerned at the Russian military threat on their borders, meaning they would be much more likely to welcome such a U.S. deterrent on their soil. For example, Poland and Romania, which already host some elements of the U.S. missile defense system like the ground-based Mk-41 universal launcher systems, could be prime candidates for a deployment. It was these previous missile deployments, however, that contributed to Russia's decision to cease adhering to the INF Treaty, since the U.S. launcher systems could theoretically fire sea-based Tomahawk cruise missiles (whose range was banned by the INF Treaty) from a ground-based facility. The United States has not yet developed any new intermediate-range missiles, but it could reintroduce nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles and deploy them in Europe if circumstances dictate.
Europe's initial concerns following the collapse of the INF Treaty — namely, that the United States could once again deploy nuclear missiles in Europe — may have been an overreaction, but amid the prospect that the strategic arms stability framework could deteriorate further, such deployments are not completely out of the question. Nevertheless, the United States and its European allies are likely to tread carefully, given that such actions would inevitably trigger a Russian reaction.