IN THE EARLY 1980s, a wave of fear about nuclear war rippled across Europe. The Soviet Union deployed a new generation of intermediate-range missiles carrying nuclear warheads aimed at Western Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization responded by offering to negotiate while deploying its own missiles aimed at Soviet targets: the fast-flying Pershing-II and ground-launched cruise missiles, both carrying nuclear warheads. A new arms race got underway.
We now know that the dangers were felt not only in the West but in Moscow, too. In 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev confided to aides that the West’s nuclear missiles were “a gun at our temple.” The following year, Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan signed an agreement eliminating the whole class of nuclear weapons in Europe. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was good for Europe, and remains so today, long after the Cold War has ended.
So it was unsettling when the Obama administration recently published a compliance report saying that Russia had violated the treaty. At issue is a provision that prohibits the possession, production or flight-testing of ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of 500 kilometers (311 miles) to 5,500 kilometers (3,417 miles) or launchers for such missiles. The United States has not published details of the claimed violation, which makes it hard to evaluate, but it reportedly involves tests of a ground-launched cruise missile.
Cruise missiles are dangerous because they can use terrain-hugging technology to fly under radar and sneak up on an adversary. The administration is right to go public with this concern. However, very little is known about the Russian weapons system at issue. Are there plans for serial production and deployment, or was this some kind of experimental test series? Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying the U.S. claims are “unsupported.”
Both Washington and Moscow have expressed interest in new talks that would deal with this issue, and that is the best way to approach it. Russia should be transparent and reveal what was tested and why, and the United States ought to say publicly what is behind the charge of a violation. Russia has long chafed at the treaty, but this is no time for either side to abandon it. If there is a violation, then it should be dealt with straightforwardly.
What is often forgotten about the Cold War arms race is that it was not only a competition for bigger and more destructive weapons. It was also a contest of mistrust, misperception and deception. At times, such as the Cuban missile crisis and a war scare in the autumn of 1983, the mistrust may have been more dangerous than anything else. The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a worthy attempt to reverse this mind-set and eliminate the missiles. If there are loose bolts or squeaky joints in the treaty after a generation, the right course of action is to address them squarely, and openly, rather than revert to mistrust and deception. There is enough of that already from Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine.
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