When the sprawling “Patriot” theme park was inaugurated two years ago, the Russian Ministry of Defense invited thousands of visitors to re-enact the 1945 Battle of Berlin around a life-size model of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building, that it had built. An old German Messerschmitt airplane flew overhead, and loudspeakers blared Russian military marches and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Visitors to “Patriot” get to play soldier for a day: They can spoon army rations in partisan hideouts, gander at the latest war booty from Syria, admire historic tanks and even shoot Kalashnikovs.
More recently, the sprawling, snowy grounds were the scene of another performance by Russia’s military leadership. The Defense Ministry invited foreign military attaches and correspondents to bear witness as the country demonstrated its innocence to the world. Guests were ushered into an empty exhibition hall where, just to be safe, there was no mobile phone reception. And there it lay, like a coffin resting on two green, metal supports: the corpus delicti, Russia’s alleged super weapon, a missile capable of traveling so far that Washington says it is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the agreement that has curbed the United States’ and Russia’s nuclear arsenals for decades.
Presenting the missile to the world in such a manner was an act of unprecedented transparency, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. What he failed to mention was that the missile on display was, in fact, merely a hollow metal casing void of any controversial payload.
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The new cruise missile can only travel 480 kilometers (298 miles), the head of Russia’s artillery and missile troops, lieutenant-general Mikhail Matveevsky, assured. With that, it remains below the 500-kilometer limit imposed by the INF treaty, he added. He indicated the white markings on the outside of the tube clearly showed there was no more room for any extra fuel.
Surely, Moscow didn’t expect to impress the U.S. with its PR stunt. Andrea Thompson, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, called the demonstration “ridiculous.”
A New Global Arms Race?
On Friday, American President Donald Trump made good on his threat to pull the U.S. out of the INF treaty, meaning one of the last two remaining major disarmament treaties between the U.S. and Russia will expire after six months. Nuclear arms control, which has provided Europe with security and stability for more than three decades, will be history. The result could be a new global arms race.
What may at first glance appear to be a regression to the chilliest days of the Cold War, is in fact much more dangerous. When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF treaty back in 1987, the world was far less complicated. There were only two superpowers, each of which was disinclined to use its nukes thanks to the prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction.
After the treaty was signed, thousands of cruise missiles and rockets with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers were destroyed. Today, there are around a dozen countries — including China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and North Korea — that have their own midrange rockets. These arsenals, sometimes derided as “a poor man’s air force,” are growing rapidly while insecurity spreads around the world. Countries as unstable as Pakistan have their own nuclear weapons, and Iran and Saudi Arabia could follow. In the Middle East, regional powers are locked in an arms race, while in the South China Sea, Beijing is stationing missile systems on islands that neighboring states say belong to them. Military strategists are planning interregional nuclear conflicts; indeed, atomic weapons no longer appear to be taboo.
The latest generation of nuclear missiles are difficult to intercept. Advanced warning times have become so short that humans are barely capable of reacting. The danger of an unintentional escalation — i.e., an accidental nuclear war — is growing.
The mistrust among today’s nuclear powers has reached a level not seen since the peak of the Cold War. When the INF treaty was signed, Russia was led by Gorbachev, the architect of glasnost. Fast forward to today and the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, uses unpredictability as a political weapon. And in Washington, President Trump doesn’t see why the U.S. shouldn’t just use its nuclear weapons.
Feeling the Fallout
In Berlin, there is talk of a “Trump-Putin problem.” For months, communications channels between the Americans and the Russians at the highest levels have been silent. The last time both countries’ presidents spoke to each other at length was in Helsinki in July. A meeting scheduled for November in Paris never took place. And talks on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires in early December was canceled due to the crisis in the Sea of Azov.
In the U.S., the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections has put President Trump under so much pressure that there is a de facto ban on communication between him and President Putin. Meanwhile, this has endangered the extension of the last disarmament treaty, the “New Start” pact, which limited strategic nuclear weapons. It is scheduled to expire in 2021 unless it is renegotiated.
There was also the so-called ABM treaty, which restricted the use of anti-ballistic missiles for defensive purposes. The U.S., however, pulled out in 2002. Then there is the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which set upper limits for tanks and artillery, though the Russians haven’t felt bound to that agreement for more than 10 years. And now doubt is being cast on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has prevented the spread of nuclear weapons around the world for nearly 50 years, on the condition that the nuclear superpowers work to reduce their stockpiles — and that’s clearly not happening anymore.
The biggest impact of the collapse of the INF treaty is likely to be on Europe. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks of a “great new risk for Europe” and has threatened Russia with countermeasures. “The collapse of the INF treaty is bad for NATO, bad for our security and bad for our relationship with Russia,” warns Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference.
How will NATO react? Roderich Kiesewetter, a defense expert with Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party (CDU), is already calling for a new version of the NATO Double-Track Decision of 1979, a mixture of “firmness while negotiating and a willingness to engage in dialogue.” “If Russia doesn’t dismantle its systems, we must ensure Europe’s security and shouldn’t exclude any options, even nuclear ones,” he says.
The Blame Game
The German government refused to accept the danger, apparently hoping that a worst-case scenario — the abolition of the treaty — could somehow be avoided. It was a policy of wishful thinking. The issue is extremely unpopular with voters. Many Germans don’t want to believe that the historic climate has changed and that the time of reaping the benefits of peace after the end of the Cold War is over.
It’s no wonder then that the German government only grasped the gravity of the situation once it was too late. Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t devise a plan of action until Trump announced his intention to cancel the INF treaty during a campaign event in October.
Three days before the decisive NATO meeting, Merkel spoke to Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. She urged the president not to dissolve the treaty all at once, but to give Moscow a deadline. Otherwise, Washington’s European allies could not clearly position themselves against Moscow and pin the blame for the treaty’s failure squarely on Russia.
It’s no longer about saving the treaty — now, it’s a matter of winning the “blame game.” The question is who, in the eyes of the public, is responsible for the pact’s failure. Is it the U.S., the one who ultimately decided to leave the treaty, or Russia, which according to NATO has been violating the treaty? “Unfortunately, the 60-day ultimatum was not a serious negotiating proposal,” Ischinger says.
In fact, both sides lost interest long ago in a pact that binds them to disarmament while other countries, especially China, are free to upgrade their arsenals. In 2007, Putin threatened that if the treaty didn’t apply to the entire world, it would be difficult for Russia to continue adhering to it, “especially if other countries, including ones in our direct neighborhood, have such weapons systems.” He meant China, which now has around 1,600 land-based short- and intermediate-range missiles — a source of concern not only for the Russians, but the Americans as well.
The treaty also has powerful opponents in the U.S. In late October 2018, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, sat on a podium at an event hosted by the Alexander Hamilton Society in Washington. The moderator asked him to name three things that, after his time in office, he would consider successes. Bolton laughed. “Getting out of the Iran nuclear deal,” he said. And: “Getting out of the INF treaty.” He would have to think about the third thing, he said.
The White House warned the German government as early as summer 2017 that Trump wanted to terminate the treaty. Four years prior, in May 2013, the U.S. made its first accusation that the Russians were developing a land-based intermediate-range cruise missile. Then in July 2014, Washington publicly accused Moscow of violating the INF treaty.
But Europe, where the treaty is of paramount importance for security, is still in denial. “For too long, the European alliance partners failed to develop and forcefully advocate a common position,” Ischinger says. The Americans have addressed the issue with their Russian counterparts on close to 30 occasions. The reaction always follows the same pattern: The Russians admit what they can no longer deny because the evidence is overwhelming.
Still, many NATO members — most notably France and Germany — are hesitant to accuse Russia of a clear violation of the INF treaty. At the NATO summit in Brussels in July 2018, the heads of state and government agreed upon a statement that left open a back door for Russia: “Allies believe that, in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on this new missile, the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the Treaty.”
At that, Putin seized the initiative. At a summit a few days later in Helsinki, he put forward proposals on arms control, including a renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START. The weaponization of outer space was also discussed. He said nothing new about the INF treaty. Still, from the point of view of the German government, Putin’s offers – also made in writing — represented a starting point. But the Americans reacted evasively when the Germans asked them how they were planning to respond to Putin’s proposals.
They did, however, pledge to gradually increase pressure on Moscow and not simply withdraw from the treaty in one dramatic move.
Yet Donald Trump once again failed to keep the promises his officials had made. On Oct. 20, the president announced the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement. In only a few sentences, he managed to effectively render the most important disarmament treaty in history null and void.
After Trump’s announcement, the U.S. pressured its allies to support its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. On Nov. 8, two high-ranking American officials from the State Department and the Defense Department shared important findings from U.S. intelligence agencies.
Little to Gain, a Lot to Lose
Unlike in the past, U.S. intelligence agencies granted its allied counterparts access to their raw data. They shared a satellite video showing that the Russians’ 9M729, the cruise missile at the heart of the controversy, was capable of traveling more than 500 kilometers. They also named companies involved in the development and manufacturing of the prohibited weapons and their launchers.
The demonstration had the intended effect. In early December, for the first time, the foreign ministers of NATO announced Russia had violated the INF treaty without making any allowances.
Nevertheless, talks have continued with the Russians. On Jan. 15, Undersecretary Andrea Thompson met with a Russian delegation in Geneva. The meeting, however, didn’t end well. Thompson declined a Russian invitation to have experts inspect the 9M729 missile in person. The Americans considered the offer a propaganda maneuver by Moscow. The static display of the rocket would not verify its range, Thompson said.
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