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The demise of the INF treaty: can the EU save arms control?

24 Jan 2019 - 09:58
Bron: Kelly Michals/flickr

This opinion was originally published in euobserver on January 24, 2019.

The chances that the INF Treaty will survive are very limited. The bilateral treaty between the US and Russia, dating from 1987, prohibits both states from developing nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. For some years now, both the US and Russia accuse each other of violating the treaty. President Trump has announced that the US will withdraw from the treaty by 2 February 2019 if Russia will not comply to the treaty by that date.

The fact that this dispute could not be resolved during the past years, for example by mutual inspection missions to the contested weapon systems, shows that above all there is a lack of political willingness to save the treaty. For both countries the increasing number of intermediate range missiles in states outside the treaty seems to play a role in the diminishing support for the treaty: especially China, which is not limited by the INF Treaty from deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles, is increasingly considered to pose a potential challenge for the US and/or Russia in the future.

Although the INF Treaty has global relevancy, the EU will probably face the biggest impact of its demise. It is especially Europe, geographically placed between the US and Russia, that is within the range of the missiles which the INF Treaty prohibits. A new build-up of intermediate range missiles by the US and Russia will entail increasing risks of instability and insecurity for the European Union.

Moreover, the demise of the INF Treaty could cause a snowball effect on other arms control agreements as well, not least on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in which context the nuclear weapon states are already under fierce criticism of many non-nuclear weapon states for not working towards nuclear disarmament at all.

What could the EU do? A last diplomatic effort by the EU to rescue the INF Treaty in its current or a similar form is an option, for example by looking for ways to ensure compliance via mutual inspections of the suspected weapon systems which the US and Russia currently consider, respectively deny, to be violating the treaty.

"It is especially Europe, geographically placed between the US and Russia, that is within the range of the missiles which the INF treaty prohibits"

Yet, considering the apparent lack of political will in the US and Russia, one cannot be too optimistic about the chances of survival for the INF Treaty in its current form. This means that it is also necessary to make plans for the period after 2 February, when the US is expected to start withdrawing from the treaty. Several steps could be considered:

First of all, European leaders should vocally express their serious worries on the demise of the INF Treaty and urge the US and Russia to take their responsibility as major nuclear powers to continue serious and constructive negotiations to come to new and improved nuclear arms control agreements. In these statements they could also offer active support of the EU in bringing creative though constructive input to the negotiation table.

Second, the EU could actively assist in launching new initiatives to contribute to reviving international arms control. The key challenge will be convincing the US and Russia – and probably other nuclear weapon states such as China as well – that they have common stakes in this regard. In the end, no party has anything to win by expensive and destabilizing arms races. Tax money can be spend much better and security and stability can be accomplished much more effective without increasing the risk of disastrous escalation (by purpose or by accident).

Renewed efforts to come to new arms control arrangements could follow different tracks at the same time. A first track could focus at ‘low-hanging fruit’, such as risk reduction measures to prevent nuclear weapons being used due to miscommunication, misunderstanding, technical failures, etc. It could also entail short-term damage control after the demise of the INF Treaty and, to be expected next, the New START agreement, by at least agreeing on maximum numbers and/or geographic limitations of deploying certain types of nuclear weapon missiles.

An additional, more complicated track could focus at modernizing the current arms control agreements by combining them in a new comprehensive framework which covers various weapon technologies at the same time. Ideally this track would involve as many nuclear weapons states as possible, but this will make negotiations even more complicated so it may be wise to start with US-Russia negotiations (maybe with China in an observer role). Other nuclear weapon states could be pursued to join or adhere to the initially bilateral arrangements later on as well.

Last but not least, an important issue when discussing new arms control arrangements is the need for expertise. The global number of arms control experts, especially with regard to specialist and technological complicated topics such as reliable verification methods, has seriously decreased since the negotiation processes during the Cold War. The European Union could play an important role in assisting in investing in the knowledge and expertise required for successful arms control agreements.

Any European initiative which could help reviving global arms control can only be welcomed. The EU’s active role in the nuclear deal with Iran shows that its diplomatic power is definitely able to help accomplishing diplomatic successes. Of course, cooperation with allies (not least with NATO) and deliberately playing a less visible role in the corridors of diplomatic communication channels could contribute to success.

In general, considering that there is much at stake for the security of Europe, the EU should not remain inactive while the US and Russia slowly demolish existing arms control frameworks.