Arcane and irrelevant: that is how nuclear weaponry and arms control seem to anyone aged under 45. Only those who remember the early 1980s fully grasp the danger — accidents, miscalculation — that hair-trigger nuclear weapons create.
The waking nightmare ended in December 1987 when both sides agreed, under the catchphrase “trust but verify”, to get rid of their land-based mid-range nuclear missiles. Under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, Ronald Reagan’s administration withdrew the cruise and Pershing missiles it had deployed in Britain and other countries; Mikhail Gorbachev’s Politburo did the same with the SS-20 missiles that had started the European arms race in the first place.
The INF treaty is now almost the last plank left of the arms-control agreements that managed, and ultimately ended, the Cold War in Europe. And as our security order splinters around us, that plank is on the verge of breaking.
Whereas America’s strategic triad — the mix of land, sea and air-launched nuclear weapons systems — is cash-strapped and ageing, with an almost comical dependence on out-of-date technology, Russia is modernising fast. It is building a new class of submarines, hinting that these will be armed with long-range nuclear torpedoes that could devastate a coastal city.
In recent weeks, Russia has unveiled a new, high-yield intercontinental ballistic missile; suspended a weapons-grade plutonium disposal deal; announced the permanent deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad; test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine; and conducted nuclear civil-defence drills involving 40 million people.
Russia has always had a formidable “strategic” nuclear capability: the big doomsday weapons that could, as a Kremlin propagandist helpfully noted the other day, “turn America into radioactive ash”. But these warheads are not for war-fighting: their role is as an ultimate, unthinkable deterrent.
Or at least that’s the theory. Russia’s sabre-rattling rhetoric and nerve-rattling war games are new and deeply unwelcome. What is particularly alarming the West’s surviving handful of arms-control wonks is that Russia is flagrantly breaking the INF treaty, and may be getting ready to withdraw from it altogether.
The worries go back to 2008, when American intelligence detected tests of a ground-launched cruise missile: exactly the kind of weapon, with a range from 500-5,000km, which the INF treaty prohibits. Initially, the Obama administration tried to sort the problem out quietly but the tests have continued. In 2014 the United States publicly accused Russia of violating the treaty. It repeated the charge in 2015 and this year. Finally, in an extraordinary move, it confronted Russia last week at a meeting in Geneva of the INF’s Special Verification Commission.
Russia was glad to come and put its case. It believes that the United States is the guilty party, for deploying a ballistic-missile defence system in Poland and Romania. The Americans believe this is a red herring. The Aegis Ashore system is aimed at stopping Iranian missiles heading towards the United States.
That argument cuts no ice in Moscow. It is partly that the Russians dislike any military build-up on their borders. Bad enough that Nato expanded; putting advanced American weapons in new hi-tech bases in these countries adds potential injury to existing insult. Moreover, the Russians spy hypocrisy: since the Iran nuclear deal, the purported threat from the mullahs’ regime has abated. Yet America is pressing ahead regardless.
In principle, the United States is right. Countries like Poland and Romania have every right to host allied military bases. Iran remains unpredictable; America is entitled to defend itself. The missile-defence systems are not a breach of the INF treaty. Russia is misbehaving.
Yet having no nuclear arms control in Europe would be a huge price to pay for upholding those principles, and the benefits of the missile-defence systems are slender. The technology is hugely expensive (which is why the American military-industrial complex lobbies so hard for it). It also has mixed results: hitting an intercontinental ballistic missile in mid-flight is like trying to hit a bullet with a bullet. Moreover, much of the Kremlin’s bombast comes because Russia knows that it is no match for the United States in a real war. Putting anything on Russia’s doorstep that could be interpreted as an offensive weapon raises the stakes sharply.
Meanwhile, the opportunity cost is substantial. Rather than putting a costly and untried weapons system in eastern Europe to defend America against a still non-existent Iranian threat, even hawks like me can see the advantage of putting money into weapons and measures that would deter, rather than provoke, Russia. One example is the JASSM missile: a stealthy, non-nuclear cruise missile with a hefty payload, which can be fired from ships or planes. Finland and Poland have bought the JASSM; America should sell it to other countries too. As Brexit, the Trumpquake and an explicitly revanchist Russia rattle the foundations of European security, we need to study the arms control lessons of the past, not forget them.
Edward Lucas writes for The Economist.