Russia-NATO: The thawing of the Cold War Détente

Date first published: 5/2/2018

Key sectors: security

Key risks: arms race; geopolitical instability

In October 2018, US President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Four months later in February 2019, the Trump administration officially suspended observance of the treaty, triggering the required six-months- withdrawal notice. Moscow, a day later, followed by suspending their observance of the treaty. On this trajectory, the INF Treaty will be formally dissolved by 2 August 2019.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty was the centrepiece of détente between then-president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty required that the US and Soviet Union destroy all ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,000 kilometres. Following the Soviet collapse, Russia pledged to maintain the pact. The INF Treaty laid the foundation for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), the foundation for efforts to constrain a new nuclear arms’ race at the end of the twentieth and start of the twenty-first century.

The cause of the current breakdown is Washington’s charge that Moscow is violating the treaty. Under the Obama presidency, Washington accused Russia of developing missiles that violate the treaty. The Trump administration said that the pact could only be restored if Moscow destroys the relevant weapons. Moscow, in retaliation, accused Washington of violating the treaty with the development of a new missile defence system. The dissolution of the treaty could portend a return to a Cold War-style arms race. The US is renewing construction on its first long-range nuclear weapons since 1991. Moscow immediately announced plans to build weapons previously banned under the treaty and may seek to station missiles in its Western-most enclave, Kaliningrad, leading to the presence of such missiles in Europe’s core for the first time since the end of the Cold War, as relations between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate.

Russia-EU relations also remain strained; Poland’s government has petitioned the US to establish a permanent military base in an effort to offset Russian aggrandisement in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, NATO is also carrying out increased deployments in the Baltic states. As Russia relations are hyper-politicised in the US, Trump could seek to counter accusations that he is too lenient on Moscow, or even in hock with it by supporting further deployments or moving to build Poland’s proposed base.

EU members are divided on the issue. Most agree that Russia has violated the treaty but some are convinced Washington simply lacks the political will to resolve the crisis. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass pledged diplomatic engagement with Moscow to save the accord, amid German concerns that exiting the treaty could have a snowball effect,reducing compliance with other nuclear agreements. By contrast, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson stated that Britain “stands absolutely resolute” with the US. As retired US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges has warned., withdrawing from the INF treaty could permanently “divide the NATO alliance,”

What differentiates this arms race from previous iterations is the increasing military escalation by China. Beijing has condemned the US decision to withdraw, warning of the potential dangers to global security, but does not wish to be included in any expanded pact on nuclear arms control. Last year, China announced an 8.1 per cent increase in defence spending, pursuing a modernisation of its military. A perceived China-Russia alliance would ignite an increase in military spending by the US. Withdrawal from the INF treaty, as Western attitudes towards Russia harden, could see the return of Europe as a nuclear battleground.