Victoria Nuland is a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs.
The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty after a decade of Russian violations feels satisfying and fair — they cheat, we stop playing. But is this our best option? U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty will leave U.S. military installations in Europe and our NATO allies more vulnerable to Russian nuclear blackmail, at least until we can develop and deploy our own systems to deter Moscow. Rather than rip up the treaty that makes Russian deployment illegal, the United States should take a page from President Ronald Reagan’s 1980s playbook. We should buy time through negotiations to develop and deploy our own countermeasures in Europe while offering Moscow a treaty that meets our shared security needs: countering the growing missile threat from China that the INF Treaty didn’t foresee.
In the early 1980s, European allies supported Reagan’s request to host U.S. medium-range Pershing II missiles on their territory to counter Soviet SS-20s. The move was wildly unpopular; more than 1 million West Germans staged street protests. Very quickly, however, the Pershing IIs brought Moscow to the negotiating table. The resulting INF Treaty bound the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate all land-based cruise missiles with ranges of about 310 to 3,500 miles and prohibited their future deployment by Moscow or Washington anywhere in the world.
Just 20 years later, however, a resurgent Russia under Vladimir Putin had second thoughts. By 2007, Putin was pushing President George W. Bush to reconsider the INF Treaty, citing the threat to Russia from superior U.S. conventional weapons and the growing nuclear prowess of China, Iran, North Korea and India. In June 2013, Putin publicly lamented that “almost all our neighbors” were developing medium-range nuclear weapons. By then, Moscow had been covertly developing the 9M729 missile — a nuclear-capable cruise missile that can threaten Warsaw, Paris or Berlin — for five years.
The Trump administration came to office agreeing with Putin about the INF Treaty’s constraints. Beijing, which is not bound by the INF, had used the intervening years to build its own intermediate-range missile program, developing a growing capability to threaten U.S. bases and allies in Asia. Currently, the United States counts on conventional superiority or the threat of a massive, long-range nuclear counterstrike on the Chinese to check Beijing. Free of the constraints of the INF Treaty, however, Washington could ask China’s neighbors to host medium-range, lower-yield land-based nuclear systems, giving our deterrence posture more flexibility and credibility.
The administration, therefore, saw the death of the INF Treaty as a win-win: Moscow would get blamed for violating the treaty while the United States would be free to build medium-range nuclear weapons to deter China. But what about Europe? Russia has a 10-year head start on us in developing and deploying lower-yield, medium-range nuclear weapons. The demise of the treaty would legitimize Moscow’s greater dependence on these weapons, allow their overt deployment and make the threat of their use a virtual certainty in any high-stakes conflict in Europe.
Some administration defenders assert that U.S. conventional dominance and NATO nuclear air and sea power would deter Moscow from using intermediate-range missiles; in the next few years, we are also set to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons and more missile-defense systems to neutralize any threat from the Kremlin. Yet a surprise Russian attack on the Baltic states or Poland would be far harder for NATO forces to drive back if Moscow had the ability to threaten Berlin, Warsaw and Paris with a limited nuclear strike. Moscow might just take that gamble if it judged that the United States and NATO, with no limited nuclear counter-strike options of their own, would be unlikely or unwilling to unleash a massive, high-yield nuclear strike on Russia in response.
Given these ugly options, it makes sense for us to invest a bit more diplomatic muscle and time to keep Russia out of the intermediate-range nuclear business in Europe, and instead propose a grand bargain to deter China. Rather than ditching the INF Treaty, we could offer to revise it to apply only to the European landmass west of the Ural Mountains. Russia would be allowed to deploy its 9M729 missiles beyond the range of our European or Asian allies, subject to very tight human and technical monitoring.
We, in turn, would not deploy land-based intermediate-range nuclear systems on NATO territory, and we would allow Russia reciprocal inspection of our deployments to deter China. This kind of aggressive verification would be difficult to negotiate and technically challenging. It would, however, offer Moscow the opportunity to prove its new systems are not a threat to Europe and join us in deterring common threats elsewhere. If Moscow failed to meet that test, we would be no worse off than we are today. Like Reagan, we would also have bought some time to strengthen our own deterrence, including persuading our allies to host new offensive and defensive systems, if necessary. That, in turn, could force the Kremlin, and perhaps Beijing, to the negotiating table.