World | ANALYSIS

Nuclear fears haunt leaders with U.S.-Russian arms pact's demise

Bloomberg

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a landmark arms control treaty with Russia is turning the worst fears of a dangerous weapons race into reality.

The U.S. and its allies are laying the groundwork to deploy new intermediate-range missiles in Europe for the first time since they were banned in a 1987 treaty, a move that would prompt a tit-for-tat Russian response. With a second nuclear pact likely to expire in two years, the risks of confrontation are growing.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s top civilian, cited recent Russian deployments and evoked a Cold War-style threat of nuclear destruction at a global conference of security and defense officials this weekend in Munich, the baroque German metropolis that’s one of Europe’s richest cities.

“These missiles are mobile, easy to hide and nuclear-capable,” Stoltenberg said. “They can reach European cities, like Munich, with little warning.”

As U.S. officials accused Russia of provoking the crisis by violating the accord, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced a sense of alarm that’s spreading in Europe as the two big powers trade blame.

“We’re stuck with the consequences,” she said Saturday. At the same time, “blind rearmament can’t be the answer.”

The looming standoff puts Washington and Moscow on a path back to the era of the 1950s and 1960s when the two superpowers were rapidly building up their strategic forces. It risks destroying decades of arms control efforts under which the rivals accepted limits on their arsenals in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which took them to the brink of a nuclear clash.

“Are we getting closer to the 60s when we had an uncontrolled Cold War?” said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto. “Are we heading to a situation where we must see that it’s the end of diplomacy?”

Poland, which already hosts U.S. missile-defense systems that have angered Russia, is seen as a potential site to host the American weapons, along with the ex-Soviet Baltic countries and other neighbors. Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said any missile deployment in his country would be decided “collectively by allies.”

If U.S. missiles were stationed right on Russia’s borders, that would be “provocative” and increase the risk of pre-emptive Russian action, warned Steven Pifer, a former State Department official who’s a fellow at Stanford University.

The U.S. has defended its move to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, accusing Russia of breaking the pact by deploying several battalions of SSC-8 intermediate-range missiles. The weapon is believed by Western military experts to have a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles), which Russia denies.

INF banned any land-based missiles from Europe with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, whether nuclear or conventional. While the U.S. says it won’t deploy new land-based nuclear weapons in Europe, it’s developing intermediate-range conventional missiles for ground deployment.

“We are now talking next steps,” U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson said. “We’re talking about conventional systems.”

The concerns about the potential for an armed build-up in Europe are amplified by the fact that New START, the last such arms control agreement still in place, looks set to expire in 2021.

Under New START, which followed from the 1991 START treaty and was signed in 2010, the Russian and U.S. arsenals are restricted to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers. Each side can inspect the other’s arsenals 18 times a year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Munich that Russia is ready to hold talks on extending New START for another five years, while complaining that the Trump administration is unwilling to have any “meaningful consultations” on the issue.

His deputy in charge of arms control, Sergei Ryabkov, warned that the collapse of the treaty “would be another extraordinary shock for the arms control system.”

“The most frightening thing is when in the absence of information, the two sides will have to go back to the logic of seeking a military advantage,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of Russian parliament. “It means we’ll have to spend vast resources and confront the risk for each other and the entire world of a direct armed clash.”

The INF treaty was a response to a regional arms race that began with the Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles in the European theater in 1977. The U.S. responded by deploying Pershing II missiles with a similar range. At one point, almost 3,000 intermediate-range nuclear weapons were stationed in Europe and it took a decade to end the standoff.

With the Iron Curtain gone, the difference is that now the missiles would be deployed in Eastern Europe or in former Soviet republics, closer to key Russian political, military and industrial facilities.

The U.S. has proposed replacing the INF with a broader treaty bringing in other military powers, including China. That’s considered unlikely: of China’s 501 land-based missile launchers, 431 would be covered by the INF treaty, so agreeing to a ban on intermediate-range weapons would require destroying 80 percent of this arsenal, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Losing the pact without any replacement would make it impossible for either side to know whether newly deployed missiles are nuclear or conventional, said Francois Heisbourg, a former French diplomat and Defense Ministry adviser.

“It means that military planners have to assume the worst, and that is very destabilizing.”