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Unwanted Treaty

With Łukasz Kulesa on who is to blame for the failure of the Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the problems connected with arms control, talk Małgorzata Schwarzgruber and Tadeusz Wróbel.


This year, the USA have decided to withdraw from the INF Treaty, i.e. the treaty banning all intermediate-range missiles. Why so late, considering that Washington officially accused Moscow of violating the terms of the treaty already in 2013?

Informal bilateral talks on this matter had been held even earlier than 2013. Americans had been trying to persuade Russians to quit working on their SSC-8 missiles and destroy all those that had been already produced. During Barack Obama’s presidency, not much pressure was exerted on Russia, since Washington was at the time interested in the New START Treaty, and wanted a more extensive reset in the American relations with Russia. However, the diplomatic efforts were not successful. With Donald Trump came people for whom arms control wasn’t so important any more. That’s why at the end of 2017, a new American strategy towards the INF was announced. It determined what diplomatic, economic, and military means would be implemented to either force Russians to abide by the treaty, or prepare to withdraw from it. That was when, i.a., sanctions were imposed on those Russian entities which engaged in the production of SSC-8 missiles.

Didn’t the start of work on SSC-8 coincide with Russia’s unofficial offer of bilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty?

Yes. Russians began work on the missile, because they expected that the INF Treaty would either be modified or withdrawn from by both sides. However, Americans were not interested in such a solution, and Russians didn’t express the will to withdraw unilaterally – still, they didn’t stop the work on SSC-8.

Some commentators blame the failure of the INF Treaty not only on Russia, but also on Trump’s administration, which in their opinion is directing the world towards a new arms race.

The treaty has been clearly doomed to fail for some time now. Russians have not taken advantage of any opportunity to save the INF proposed by two subsequent American administrations. The USA have rather skillfully prepared the ground for themselves to withdraw from the INF. The allies, many of whom were not convinced that Russia is violating the treaty, as well as the public opinion, were presented with more information. At the end of 2018, the allied threat assessment, consistent with the American one, was agreed upon. It seemed that, politically and propaganda-wise, the case was settled. However, when Americans were withdrawing from the treaty, president Trump spoke a lot about China, and the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, expressed his will to deploy intermediate-range missiles in Asia as soon as possible. At that time, the media were forcing a thesis that the USA were planning to withdraw from the treaty because of China, and the fact that Moscow was violating it was considered to be of secondary importance. This is a false image, because it is the Russians that are responsible for ruining the INF Treaty.

How should NATO react to the treaty being buried?

The expiration of the treaty became a catalyst for NATO. The Alliance was forced to find answers to the questions on organizing effective defense against Russian land-, air- and sea-launched missiles, which enable, not necessarily nuclear, but still an attack on its members’ territories. Strengthening NATO’s defense potential is more than certain, but there is still an ongoing internal discussion on whether the Alliance should improve its capability to hit military targets in Russia in response to its attack, also conventional.

Is it possible that the next consequence of the withdrawal will be deployment of American missiles in Europe?

For the time being, Americans don’t have such systems in their armament. They are just starting to test them. When they are available, we are facing a difficult discussion in NATO. Secretary General assured that the Alliance doesn’t want to deploy missiles with nuclear warheads on European territory. This is a key difference compared to the 1980s’ crisis, when Pershings and Gryphons were equipped with such missiles.

The Russian propaganda isn’t trying to shift the responsibility for the INF’s failure to the West?

Such tactics can be observed. President Vladimir Putin declared that he will respond to the American actions. If the USA are developing their new armament systems, Russia will do the same; and if Americans don’t deploy their missiles in a given region, Russia won’t either. This way it will express unwillingness to participate in an arms race, thus pointing to the USA as the state that pursues it. However, the Russian authorities are concealing the core of the problem, that is having created a system that led to the INF’s failure. It has a range of over 500 km and is being deployed in various parts of Russia. In NATO, it is called SSC-8. The Russians are talking about a moratorium they are violating themselves. 

Can Poland accept American intermediate-range missiles on its territory?

If such a decision is taken within the Alliance, the system will be deployed in several states. Poland could be one of them. Our country wants NATO to be united in this matter – therefore, it is not about a bilateral contract with the USA, but about a joint, firm decision taken together by all Allies.

Russian units equipped with the Iskander missile system are deployed near the Polish borders. Is it possible that the missiles can have ranges bigger than the officially stated 500 km?

In the case of Iskander, we are dealing with two types of missiles – ballistic Iskander-Ms, and cruise Iskander-Ks. Russian experts admit that their ranges are likely to be larger than declared – up to 800 km for the ballistic missiles, and over 1,000 km for the cruise ones.

Does this mean that introducing the Inskander system might have already been a violation of the INF Treaty by Russia?

The US have never made such accusations or tried to establish what the actual range of the system is.

Why haven’t they done that?

There was no mechanism that would enable them to verify the information on Iskanders given by Russia, since the control system adopted in the INF Treaty applied only to the missiles already existing at the time of signing the document, and ceased to have effect together with liquidating the last one of them. This was a serious gap in the 1987 agreement. That’s why the new Russian systems are likely to have a bigger range than allowed.

In August, when the INF Treaty expired, Americans conducted a test of a new cruise missile with a range of over 500 km. They seem to have been ready for such a situation.

The US announced already in 2017, when the new strategy concerning the INF was being adopted, that they are starting R&D work on such systems, which was not forbidden in the treaty. Its signatories were not allowed only to test or produce them.

What new weapon do the US want to introduce into their arsenal?

All branches of the armed forces and every major armaments company have offered new systems. For the time being, there are at least four programs on building cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of over 500 km. There is also talk about increasing capabilities of the HIMARS system and about a supersonic missile. The problem is financial limitations and the stand of congressmen of the Democratic Party. They want to know if the new weapon is really necessary, considering the fact that the USA already has similar armament onboard ships and aircraft.

Americans have announced that the new systems will be armed with conventional warheads, but will this decision remain unchanged?

True, the laws passed by the Congress state that the new systems are to be conventional. If the Pentagon tried to introduce changes, a fierce political debate would be triggered on whether new nuclear systems are necessary and whether the USA can afford them, both in the political and financial sense.

In their talks with Americans, Russians supported their will to withdraw from the INF by claiming that many neighboring Asian states have intermediate-range missiles, and some of them also possess nuclear weapons. Is Moscow still talking about the feeling of threat in the region?

There has been an interesting shift in this regard. Years ago, Russian experts claimed they needed such systems for local deterrence. In the last few months, when there is a lot of talk in Moscow that China is Russia’s partner, maybe even ally, the discussions on using new missiles in the Far East have ceased. Now Moscow is presenting the systems as a reaction to NATO’s and the USA’s activities in Europe.

Why does Russia need new missile systems when it already has similar armament?

It is obviously a part of their deterrence strategy. On top of that, new missiles enlarge Russia’s range of possibilities available in the event of a crisis in contacts with the West. Moscow can take advantage of them, for example, to attempt to create divisions within NATO, suggesting it will attack only some of its members.

Russia has stopped talking about deploying missiles formerly forbidden by the INF in Asia. The US is doing quite the opposite. Why?

This reflects the strategic debate that is now ongoing in the USA. We concentrate on what is said about Europe and Russia, while the main topic of the American discussion is China.

What role do Americans see for their medium- and intermediate-range missiles in the Asia Pacific region?

According to many American strategists, deploying missiles in Asia could be useful in order to hinder the realization of regional objectives by China. Americans know that Chinese anti-access/area denial systems would make it difficult for the US ships and aircraft to get close enough to China to be able to use armament. They would also be afraid to use strategic systems, as it would trigger a full-scale nuclear conflict and provoke a Chinese attack on the US territory. All this means that short-, medium- and intermediate-range missile systems could be used to blackmail the Chinese in case of a crisis, and to control the escalation of a potential conflict.

Where could Americans deploy such armament? On their island of Guam?

The location of the missiles will be conditional on the type of systems Americans will ultimately produce. If they are equipped with intermediate-range missiles, Guam is indeed one of the possible locations. The problem is the size of the island, only 544 km2, and one of the key features of such systems is their mobility, which makes them hard to detect and destroy. That’s why territories of regional allies of the US would be a much better place to deploy them. American experts think that missiles should be located in South Korea or Japan. However, authorities in Tokyo and Seoul are aware that accepting the missiles on their territory would antagonize both China and Russia.

There has been information that medium-range missiles could also be deployed in Alaska. Does it make sense?

Considering the location, in the event of a conflict in, for example, the Taiwan Strait, potential targets would be too far. Even worse, the very deployment of such missiles in Alaska would encourage Russia to further tighten the ties with Beijing.

Is it possible that the expiration of the INF Treaty will become the beginning of the end to the arms control system that was created back in the days of the USSR?

The fear that the hitherto arms control system would fall apart was one of the reasons that so many people fought for so long to keep the INF in place. However, the crisis in this area had begun long before the expiration of the INF.

Maybe the bilateral system created in the times of the Cold War lacks any raison d’être in the current multi-polar world.

The strategic level arms control system created in the 1960s and 1970s was an artificial concept from the very beginning. The USA and the Soviet Union determined arbitrarily what systems are strategic, the levels to which they should be reduced, as well as verification mechanisms. We are at a crossroads: the hitherto arms control system can’t work, as there are new players and new technologies in place, but there is no concept as to what the new one should look like.

The problem is the closer relation between two nuclear powers, Russia and China, which are in opposition to the USA.

One idea, strongly promoted by president Trump’s administration, is to include China in the former American-Russian arms control system, but the Chinese don’t want that. They say their nuclear arsenal is incomparably smaller than the Russian or the American one, and that they might get involved in the creation of a new, multilateral control system, if both these countries reduce the number of possessed nuclear bombs.

The fact is, however, that not only these states have nuclear weapons...

That’s why there is a new idea: to move away from the symmetrical arms control system towards a proportional one. Therefore, the accepted level of possessed warheads and carrying means would be different for the USA and Russia, and different for China, France, India, etc. It is a very interesting solution, but nevertheless unlikely. Another concept assumes that we should move away from grand, more and more complicated treaties, and instead focus on reducing the risk of using nuclear weapons. This would mean, i.a., learning and better understanding of particular states’ nuclear doctrines, and creating channels of communication and dialog between world powers in the event of a crisis. In my opinion, such pragmatic attitude is the most interesting, as I don’t see any chance of returning to the traditional arms control system.

Besides technical issues, is it lack of trust between world powers that prevents them from creating new mechanisms for arms control?

Actually, the sides involved do not necessarily have to trust one another to talk about arms control. In the times of the Cold War, the basis of arms control was initially the total lack of trust between the USA and the Soviet Union. The impulse to start negotiations was the shock both sides experienced after the Cuban Crisis, when they were closer to a nuclear war than either of them wanted. The second factor was the very seditious, for those times, statement that neither of the two sides can win the arms race.

Does this mean a serious crisis can be the only impulse to start treating arms control seriously again?

Arms control is not a nice thing in times of peace. It is a solution that is supposed to reduce the possibility of war. I think we must once again find and focus on that original aim of arms control. Let’s hope that another crisis, like the one from 1962, won’t be necessary.


Łukasz Kulesa – Deputy Director of the Research and Analysis Office at the Polish Institute of International Affairs. His interests include international security issues, arms control, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He also worked at the National Security Bureau and as a research coordinator at the European Leadership Network in London.


Małgorzata Schwarzgruber, Tadeusz Wróbel

autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz

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