hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 22 October 2018

Trump, INF and the Putin Trap

“Dual-track would see Alliance conventional forces significantly strengthened and its nuclear forces modernised, whilst seeking new arms control talks with Moscow.  The aims of these talks would include: re-establishing Russian compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; reducing the imbalance in non-strategic nuclear forces in Europe; enhancing transparency and predictability of conventional forces, and reducing destabilising concentrations of forces along NATO’s and Russia’s common borders”.

The 2017 GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Report

INF & Putin

Alphen, Netherlands 22 October. President Trump’s decision to unilaterally abrogate the December 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) threatens not only to start a new arms race but to split NATO asunder and with it the wider transatlantic relationship. In spite of being justified on several levels to walk away from INF, he is wrong to do so.

The INF Treaty eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles and their launchers in Europe with a range of between 500 and 1000 km (short-range) and 1000 to 5500 km (intermediate range).  In June 1988 the Treaty came into force and ended one of the most destabilising periods of the Cold War.

President Putin has made no attempt to conceal his desire to rebuild the Soviet Union, at least in part. He has also made it abundantly clear that Russia is locked into a policy of using both conventional and nuclear military capability to threaten, coerce and intimidate his neighbours, both NATO and non-NATO members. He is also conducting a significant war in Eastern Ukraine. In other words, those ‘experts’ who suggest that President Putin would not dare launch another misadventure in Europe simply do not know. Putin is developing the military capability, he has stated his intent, and all he needs now is the opportunity. The three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Norway’s North Cape and the Arctic, as well as the Black Sea are all at risk.

Putin’s INF-busting and the Trump decision

The specific weapons system of concern to the Americans is the Novator 9M729 missile (NATO codename of SSC-8). It can be launched at very short notice with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead and has the range to strike almost all NATO European countries. Novator is a development of the 9K720 Iskandr M missile system (NATO codename SS-26 Stone) and its naval equivalent Iskandr Kalibr.  Implicit in the deployment of the SSC-8 is President Putin’s continuing assault on all the treaties agreed that were designed to stabilise the European continent at the end of the Cold War.  Not only has the INF Treaty been undermined by Russia’s break-out but also the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe from which Russia withdrew in March 2015.

President Trump’s decision bears the clear hallmark of his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has long-believed that such treaties are for lesser powers than the US which for the sake of peace needs to maintain a decisive military advantage over all other powers if peace is to be preserved.   Equally, the Trump administration clearly has a point about Russian cheating. However, if one looks at President Trump’s INF statement he also lines up China in his sights. China is not a signatory to INF and one justification Russian claims for developing treaty-busting systems is that INF prevents Moscow from matching Beijing’s burgeoning weapons systems. President Trump is thus not only accusing Russia of breaking out of the INF Treaty, but by including China in his remarks he is also suggesting that the Treaty itself is being overtaken by technology and events.


The Trump decision also reveals a truth Europeans find very hard to accept – a full-blown arms race is again underway and must be confronted because it has huge implications for the Alliance. Back in 1975 the Euromissiles crisis erupted when the Soviet Union deployed the SS20 a mobile, hard-to-detect, triple-warhead nuclear-tipped missile system that could strike European capitals with little warning, but not continental North America. Moscow’s political objective was to ‘decouple’ the defence of Europe from the strategic nuclear arsenal of the United States. By deploying these missiles the Brezhnev regime of the time posed a question to Washington that has been at the heart of NATO’s deterrence dilemma since its 1949 inception – do Americans really want to die for Europe?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Carter and Reagan administrations responded by deploying Cruise and Pershing 2 intermediate missiles to Europe to counter the Soviet weapons and to reinforce the Alliance with a further layer of deterrence. However, the deployment of the American weapons to Europe spectacularly backfired politically and was so controversial that Washington’s attempt to counter Soviet attempts to de-couple the US from its European allies almost achieved the opposite.

One reason Cruise and Pershing 2 deployments were so controversial was that the Soviet Union set out to make them so. Moscow undermined Alliance solidarity by funding radical, leftist groups across Western Europe to make it as hard as possible for European governments to accept the new American weapons on their soil. The Soviets backed that covert effort up with a barrage of propaganda which painted the Americans as the aggressors.  At one point the Carter administration proposed deploying an Enhanced Radiation Weapon, or Neutron Bomb as it was dubbed, that would kill people but not buildings. What has been an attempt to reassure West Germans that the defence of Europe would not be at the cost of their annihilation collapsed when Moscow suggested the system was a capitalist bomb designed to preserve property at the expense of people.

Putin’s trap and the rules-based system

So, why is President Trump wrong to walk away from INF? Role on forty or so years and the rise of the radical, youthful left is again apparent in European countries.  Much of its political energy is coming from social media which Moscow is manipulating and exploiting  It is part of a new concept of warfare that I have dubbed ‘4D warfare’, through which Russia combines disinformation, destabilisation, disruption and destruction to achieve the political pre-conditions to potentially inflict three other ‘D’s on Europeans – deception, decoupling and political decapitation.

If President Trump were to unilaterally abrogate the INF Treaty he would walk straight into a carefully laid political trap that President Putin has laid for him.  Moscow would first suggest that for all the West’s talk of a rules-based system American ‘aggression’ proves what he has been saying all along that the West are hypocrites when it comes to rules. President Trump’s assertion that the US would “…not let Russia go out and do weapons [whilst] we’re not allowed to” implies the US might press to reintroduce ‘Euromissiles’ into Europe. Not only would such a deployment split the Alliance and threaten again to ‘decouple’ the US from its European allies, but it would also almost certainly lead again to massive and destabilising street protests by Europeans who have no memory of the Cold War, fuelled by Kremlin-backed hackers and trolls across social media. Indeed, any legitimate counter-measures the Alliance deploys, such as strengthened missile defences will be presented as ‘aggression’.

Furthermore, Moscow will now claim it has every right to press ahead with yet more deployments and treaty-illegal weapons systems. Worse, the American decision will enable Moscow to again create a Euro-specific nuclear strategy better designed to destroy structures and systems vital to the defence of Europe. Above all, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from INF will re-energise the Kremlin’s ‘paranoia strategy’ and strengthen the narrative of external threat and thus ensure Russians are kept firmly locked in autocracy.   

Dual track and broad deterrence

Rather than walk away from INF, the Trump administration should do all it can to offset Russian cheating by turning INF against Putin. This could be done not only by highlighting repeated Russian breaches but by developing new and legitimate ways to counter the Russian systems. For example, INF does not prohibit sea-based systems, an anomaly that was included in the Treaty to protect the British and French nuclear arsenals. Washington should also remind the allies of just how the 1987 INF Treaty was eventually secured – dual track! At the time NATO both sought to talk to the Kremlin whilst at the same time reinforced its conventional military power to ensure deterrence remained credible.

There is something else the Americans should push the Allies to do – innovate. The West needs a new concept of Broad Deterrence that stretches across a new escalation spectrum from hybrid war to hyper war via cyberwar. War at the seams of our governments and societies is already a fact with opportunistic Russia and long-game China already exploiting those seams to effect. Broad deterrence would deter across the new domains of warfare such as Artificial Intelligence (et al), cyberwar, electronic warfare and hyper war domains, and across air, sea, land, cyber, space, nuclear, information and knowledge with the aim of enhancing resiliency, strengthening protection and enhancing power projection upon which all contemporary defence must be established. The specific aim should be the construction of a new escalation ladder designed to raise the threshold of 'success' for any adversary and to confound their own thinking by forcing them to onto the strategic and political back foot. 

INF, 4D warfare and the Putin trap

The World is entering a new cynical ‘ideological’ (cynological?) struggle in which re-invigorated strong men the world over, such as President Putin, are challenging the rules-based system. Putin and his ilk want a return to Machtpolitik in which might is right and the strong do what they can, whilst the weak accept what they must. The West, American and Europe together to the fore, must re-galvanise themselves for this new struggle by preserving the rules-based system for which two world wars and a cold war were fought.  America will not achieve that noble aim if one of its first acts in the new struggle is to destroy one of the very rules which must be defended and in so doing hand President Putin the very propaganda victory he seeks. As for the European Allies, they must finally realise that if the twenty-first-century transatlantic security contract is to endure, and Washington to remain committed to upholding the system from which they have so benefitted, then Europeans are going to have to do a lot more deterring and if needs be a lot more defending. Like it or not, in an emergency the lawfare beloved of Europeans and enshrined at the heart of their many institutions will afford them no defence in warfare.

The simple truth is that one does not defend the rules-based system by breaking its rules and destroying the system which upholds them. President Trump is certainly making a mistake by abrogating the INF Treaty, although he is surely right to highlight the dangers posed by those that breach it.  What now? If we are going to avoid Euromissiles 2, it is time for Dual Track 2.

Julian Lindley-French    

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