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Cold War Missile Treaties, Part II: Nuclear Boogaloo

If you ask Russians most anything related to strategic forces, odds are pretty good that they’ll gripe about US missile defense.
May 31, 2014, 12:15pm
Image via Vitaly Kuzmin

Russia is apparently on the verge of completely crashing a Cold War treaty on nuclear weapons. Rather, the delivery system for nuclear weapons. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (or INF) of 1987 was in response to an arms race that was getting out of hand. (This is explained in brilliant detail in Part I of this article). Not by overt agression, but through "salami slicing:" making a series of individual infractions to an agreement, each one too small to consider truly illegal or alarming. No matter how thin you slice it, eventually you'll be left with nothing.

Although no one has approved of these various breaches, Congressional Republicans want the Obama Administration to go from back-channel nastygrams to something big and confrontational, but the Administration doesn't agree with this approach. Which one you prefer depends on how you judge Russian motivations, and ultimately exposes an underlying debate about geopolitics spotlighted by Russian activities in Ukraine and Crimea.

Cold War nuclear treaties: Old and busted or cool vintage? Read more here.

First, there’s a big question: Why the hell does Russia want to nuke the INF Treaty? They've been bucking it since at least 2007 and already have a crap-ton of weapons. They could nuke Europe to their heart’s desire. Why resurrect these highly destabilizing, highly threatening nuclear delivery systems?

There are four reasons that Russia might be putting the squeeze on the INF (I mean, other than the purely recreational purposes).

If you ask Russians most anything related to strategic forces, odds are pretty good that they’ll gripe about US missile defense. The US government swears up and down that missile defense is about protection against rogue states (read: people we think are too goddamn crazy to be deterred). Russia and China will protest to the high heavens that missile defense is an attack on their nuclear deterrent capability (the argument is that missile defense only exists to eliminate their ability to hit back after a surprise US first strike) and part of a US plan to start nuclear wars willy-nilly. Critics of missile defense, like MIT's Ted Postol and George Lewis, will howl that it doesn't work anyway. All of this shouting, of course, benefits nobody but the makers of cough drops.

As arguments go, the idea that Russia is trying to get around the INF treaty to counter US missile defense plansis kind of plausible, but a bit hard to credit as the "real reason" that Russia is testing INF limits because there’s at least a 50% chance that missile defense will come up in any strategic discussion with Russia. So to the ears of US decision makers it has become a bit like crying wolf.

Aside from responding to US missile defense programs, another reason Russia might be pushing the limits of the INF treaty is that they want to scare the hell out of Europeans. Although Russia already has a huge nuclear arsenal, it takes work for them to strike terror into the hearts of European leadership by drawing attention to the fact. In this case, squeezing the INF treaty makes a lot of sense.

Moreover, if you’re concerned that Russia is going to start getting grabby elsewhere in Eastern Europe, like the Baltic states (meaning NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), then from a deterrence and signaling perspective, a visible, intermediate-range nuclear force makes lots of sense. Nothing says “If you value not glowing, please reconsider that troop movement” like the re-positioning of intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

As Jeffrey Lewis noted in his piece on the INF, "Westerners who want to look the other way can excuse [Russian] cheating as being oriented toward China, or busy themselves with Russophone legalese about the finer points of the [INF Treaty]." It’s always been a little hard to tell which the Russians (and before them, the Soviets) feared more – war with Europe or war with China. China shares a long border, and while their technology hasn't always been cutting-edge, there are literally a billion Chinese over there, which keeps some Russians up well into the wee hours of the morning.

China has nuclear weapons, but most of their arsenal is not mounted on systems that can actually reach and hit much of the US. The important part is that the majority of China’s deployed nuclear weapons are intermediate range – close enough to play nuclear whack-a-mole with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, or any of the other countries in China’s immediate neighborhood.

These arguments all probably have a grain of truth to them, but there’s an essential point that they also seem to all miss: Russians don’t think about nuclear war in exactly the same way that Americans do.

Russia actually thinks pretty hard about the cases when nuking something would just be the perfect something to cap off the day and turn that frown upside down.

While the particular language is different, the idea shows up in the discussions surrounding the 2010 release of Russia’s current military doctrine. Among other things, it indicates that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts and in local and regional disputes. Russian military planners are students of history from Napoleon invading Russia, to the Nazis invading Russia, to the US grinding the Iraqi army into a fine powder in the Gulf War. They realize you can completely lose a war quickly and badly, even without being nuked.

Russian planners also tend to see nuclear weapons as being primarily political weapons, rather than military ones. For instance, one idea is that using nukes might actually de-escalate a conflict. That is, if Russia were faced with an overwhelming conventional attack and was getting its ass kicked, it might light off a nuke or two as sort of a very large, radioactive call for a time out, before things get really serious and they had no choice but use a whole lot of nukes to save their hide.

From this perspective, keeping nuke options open makes perfect sense, and is probably as big a driver of Russian actions towards the INF treaty as anything else.

So, how should the US respond? Well, that brings us to Crimea. The US and others in the international community seemed shocked that a country would do something like shoplift a peninsula from a neighboring country. Secretary of State John Kerry said “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country.”

Beneath that sentiment is an assumption that there’s some sort of ongoing evolution in international affairs; a higher, more refined, future state towards which international relations will inevitably evolve. That we’ve gone from caveman style, to big ol’ wars, and now we just tweet a clever hashtag, open negotiations, and then bore people to death.

But there’s not necessarily any reason to believe that this is true.

It could be that these different modes of conflict, chatting at Davos versus the Great Crimean Heist are simply different diplomatic fashions that will go in and out of favor, like men's facial hair. Worse, it could be sort of a rock-paper-scissors thing: invasion beats diplomacy, diplomacy beats sanctions, sanctions beats tanks.

Reneging on the INF treaty actually starts to make a whole lot of sense if you don’t buy into the perfecting evolution of international relations, and instead view the actions of the US and the international community cynically. If, for instance, the Iraq War was all about oil and hoodwinking the international community, then perhaps a return to a nuclear balance of terror is the only reasonable option for a country like Russia. Absent a future utopia of negotiation, international diplomacy, and understanding, the ugly but straightforward mechanics of deterrence and armed suasion become more and more appealing.

If scrapping the INF treaty is a horrible idea, nukes are evil, and people shouldn't resort to warfare, then perversely, you have to give benefit of the doubt that the high-minded rhetoric the US likes to toss around. That idealistic rhetoric, however stupidly implemented, is still an appeal to a kinder, gentler future in which war becomes an obsolete tool of ancient history.

If neither option appeals, then maybe the only remaining, logically coherent option would for the US to scream bloody murder because Screw Russia. Should the INF go up in smoke and Europe becomes home to a new generation of intermediate nuclear forces, Russia will be more vulnerable than the US. It might be disappointing and distasteful, but maybe the US is exhausted by more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is it just easier to shut up, go home, and leave nukes behind to do the talking?

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via Vitaly Kuzmin