Seeking Global Strategic Stability: Between the INF and the New START

A carnival float depicts Trump and Putin cutting the INF Treaty during to a carnival parade in Duesseldorf, Germany (Photo: AP)

On February 1, 2019, President Trump suspended US compliance with the obligations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The INF Treaty was signed in 1987 by the USA and the USSR, to which the Russian Federation succeeded.

As official documents state, the motivation for suspending US compliance with the Treaty is based on the fact that “Russia has repeatedly violated the Treaty with impunity.”

The text of the INF Treaty had been drafted after over seven years of negotiations.

The “second” Cold War to which the 1987 INF Treaty wanted to put a limit regarded political and military events of great relevance: the war in Afghanistan for Russia; the action of the Polish trade union Solidarnosc and, on the other hand, also President Reagan’s doctrine on the global Communist danger.

The first step was taken by the USA, which in no way wanted the relocation of the SS-20 missiles to the Warsaw Pact countries and to the Middle East.

With their 5,000-km range, the SS-20 missiles were bound to change the defense doctrine of NATO’s European sector completely.

As maintained by Michel Tatu in his book, La bataille des euromissiles, it was the end of the great Soviet influence operation started in 1968.

This was also at the origin of the explicit INF prohibition – until to date – of using the intercontinental missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

So why has President Trump taken such a clear-cut reaction? Certainly, the US president has accused Russia of having broken the INF treaty. The reason, however, is simple: the Novator 9M729 system.

This missile system has the same range of 500 to 5500 kilometers, which is the whole range of the INF Treaty.

Test-fired for the first time in 2015, it has a maximum tangency rate of 6,000 kilometers. The tangency rate is the point beyond which an aircraft no longer has propulsive balance.

The 9M729 can carry a warhead weighing up to 500 kilograms. It is currently deployed in the Trans-Bajkal area, east of Lake Baikal, in St. Petersburg’s region, in Southern Russia, in Syria, and in the Kaliningrad exclave.

The danger is obvious, as well as the strategic importance of the new Russian medium-range missile system.

The USA has responded with the normal procedures of the INF Treaty. Russia, however, has recently carried out a demonstration of the 9M729 system precisely for NATO, in which the US, British, French, and German representatives were voluntarily absent.

Here, the mechanism becomes strictly political: while the USA is moving away from the INF Treaty, in early 2019 Russia stated that it would feel free to build all the non-INF missile systems it deems useful.

Apart from the 100 models of 9M729 already built and positioned, Russia wants to play its new supremacy in the sector of hypersonic weapons, in strategic correlation with China and South-East Asia.

There are also the special weapons, such as Poseidon – a drone carrying a nuclear warhead under the sea that is later blown up near the coast, thus generating a radioactive tsunami or the Oniks system, a naval-use missile with an operating speed of 2.5 Mach and a very high degree of interoperability.

The USA still has the ability and capacity for technological reorganization, with the projects already completed and those still in progress, but Europe remains exposed.

Caught between two fires, the EU will remain alone, i.e., between Trump’s substantial coldness in repeating the old formula of European defense, in which the USA deals with the missile and cybersecurity side, and the EU countries of conventional programming and planning.

In any case, the new weapons and even the end of the INF Treaty enable the Russian Federation to expand its own attack options – which may also be unpredictable – while the US response options are consequently more limited.

How does the EU respond? There have been many negotiations before the termination of the INF Treaty – which will occur in August 2019 – but now the die has been cast.

So what could be the solutions to this new break in the old bipolar Cold War system?

As a first move, we could think about an extension of the New START Treaty, signed in 2010 by President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Medvedev.

Through an expansion of the New START Treaty, we could think about a US full intelligence coverage of the new Russian defense technologies – an opportunity that would hardly be repeated under other conditions.

The New START Treaty could favor two very important operations, both in terms of political climate and of do ut des: the protocol relating to a Treaty for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia, and above all the Protocols I and II for the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Africa.

Another option could be a Russia seeking the clash in Europe, considering the significant surplus of nuclear and conventional weapons compared to NATO and the United States.

Obviously, Russia will wait for the right moment, which will be decided by the coordination of strategic positions also in the other regions: the Asian, South-East Asian, Arctic, and Indian ones, up to the Latin American system.

Moreover, we also need to consider the large and increasingly wider Chinese missile arsenal, 90% of which is already outside the scope of the INF Treaty.

With a view to using its large missile arsenal, China’s first goal could be to remove the threat of the US Navy from its coasts and, above all, from the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The other goal will be to later avoid US missile presence in Japan, of course, and in the waterways ranging from the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia.

Furthermore, Russia could use its temporary missile advantage to divide NATO between the pro-Trump Eastern Europe and the EU West, which is less interested in the clash with Russia.

Another problem is the coupling between the new Russian medium-range missile system and the over 2,650 Chinese missiles.

This can certainly happen, but without having Europe as a goal, which may possibly be targeted by the missile forces present in the Maghreb region.

There may be a Russia-China conflict for the Arctic in the future, albeit in at least ten years.

All this will only happen if there is no new treaty for intermediate weapons, which – as already seen – has diverging interests, but also strategic atouts.

For example, removing tension opens up increasing opportunities for agreement.

In this case, considering the type of medium-range missile weapons, with a new INF Treaty it would be a matter of substantially freeing the oceans, especially the Pacific one.

Furthermore, given the cost of missile upgrade – for which 8 billion US dollars would be needed for US missiles only – we could imagine that a new treaty would create new and huge economic resources, which would be very useful for both the USA and the Russian Federation.