East-Central Europe and the Demise of the INF Treaty: A 21st Century Dual Track Approach

The development of the Russian SSC-8 intermediate-range missile, and the subsequent United States and Russian withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) ended the most successful bilateral non-proliferation treaty, a cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime. The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated all American and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres. These missiles were being deployed into Eastern and Western Europe during a period of heightened tensions in the Cold War during the early 1980s. The INF Treaty, by banning these missiles, spared Europe from the devastation these weapons could have unleashed. Now, missiles of these category are again poised to be deployed in Europe. East-Central Europe, whose nations have since joined NATO, now face the prospect of being threatened by a Russian missile build-up. However, this conundrum also presents an opportunity for East-Central Europe to focus efforts on crisis management through revitalising an old Cold War strategy, the dual-track approach. Engaging in trust building and diplomatic efforts on the one hand and investing in defence and resilience to deter aggression on the other could reverse the current adversarial situation principally caused by the loss of trust.

One of the more visible and immediate consequences of the demise of the INF Treaty is the severe weakening of the security situation in Europe. Russian missile capability can target all of Europe, endangering it once more with missiles which the two super powers agreed not to develop and deploy in 1987. According to the European Parliamentary Research Service, these intermediate range missiles “are known as ‘first-strike weapons’, whose launch cannot be detected and that take only a few minutes to reach their targets, thereby reducing warning time”. This superiority allows Russia to pursue aggressive foreign policy, as Russia can more effectively threaten and deter countries within range of these missiles. Russia can intimidate European states into denying the option of hosting US nuclear missiles as a possible countermove in the face of the Russian intermediate missile threat, as Western European states did in the 1980s in a similar situation. This dominant Russian position casts a shadow on the future of deterrence in the Euro-Atlantic region. In response, the United States started producing a new low yield nuclear missile, raising fears that the situation could escalate into a new nuclear arms race. NATO is also exploring the idea of upgrading its missile defences to counter the threat of this new Russian missile. How does this affect East-Central Europe?

The nations of East-Central Europe experienced the adoption of the INF Treaty as satellite states of the Soviet Union. Russian intermediate range missiles were deployed in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and on the Western border of the Soviet Union. As satellite states, the affected nations have never been consulted about the movement of missiles and never had the chance to refuse, lest risking a forceful regime change by Soviet armies stationed within their borders. Now that almost the whole region has achieved membership in NATO, the situation is vastly different. East-Central Europe is now a target of Russian missiles and is the most threatened of all targets due to its proximity to Russia. However, as equal members of the North Atlantic Alliance and without an empire restricting their options on foreign policy, nations of East-Central Europe have a chance to play a crucial role aimed at defusing the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs.

A possible policy would be the adoption of a dual track approach, revitalising the strategy the US pursued in the 1980s. However, there should be a key difference: a clear and unified stance of not hosting US nuclear missiles in East-Central Europe, as it would provide justification for Russia to further increase its nuclear build-up in the region. Instead, the proposed dual track approach should comprise of the following policies:

1.1 First, engage in diplomatic efforts to build trust with Russia, by declining to host US nuclear missiles. Simultaneously reassuring Russia of the defensive nature of the NATO Ballistic Missile Defence housed in East-Central Europe is also important, as this is one of the reasons Russia often cites for its nuclear missile build-up. This means that the US and other NATO members have to be involved in the diplomatic offensive targeting of Russia.

1.2 A further trust-building step would be the sharing of information: it could be agreed that Russia allows NATO experts to visit its SSC8 missile sites, which NATO could reciprocate by allowing Russian officials access to the NATO ballistic missile defence (BMD) sites. These two systems are reportedly causing anguish on the opposing sides, thus more openness would reduce the uncertainties regarding these two critical systems.

These policy steps are meant to be sings of good will, aimed at reducing suspicion and providing ways forward for dialogue.

2.1 Second, invest in defence, particularly in countering the Russian missile threat through solely defensive means in order to reduce the effectiveness and threat of Russian missile capabilities.

2.2 Improving critical infrastructure protection and strengthening societal and political resilience would reduce the effectiveness of possible Russian hybrid warfare.

The goal of these steps would be to influence Moscow’s cost/gain equation in favour of conflict prevention. This way, they would require a much larger investment to achieve improved dominance in the region through aggressive, conflict escalating methods.

The measures outlined above would improve a key factor of deterrence: trust. Trust in deterrence is focused on two, interdependent aspects of trust: one, that if one of the parties fires, the other will fire back and all will be undone (the basic tenet of Mutually Assured Destruction) and two, that the other does not want to intentionally fire the first shot (which led to the détente). Therefore, trust can be translated into shared expectations, fears, and beliefs as to what the other will do given a certain scenario. In other words, trust encompasses common perceptions on possible outcomes. This nurtures predictability, a stabilising factor in conflict prevention and mitigation.

However, trust between the United States and Russia was broken when the US quit the ABM treaty in 2002 and started building the NATO BMD in East-Central Europe. In turn, Russia moved short-range Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad and started constructing the new SSC-8 missile, which ended the INF treaty. The opposite of trust is suspicion, which leads to fear. Fear that the enemy can disarm or destroy the state feeling threatened. To combat fear, offensive capabilities are developed, to deter aggression. Developing offensive capabilities without arms control or crisis defusing diplomacy could potentially spiral out of control and lead to an unintended war. In the nuclear age, the repercussions could be devastating.

Holding huge stakes in this conundrum, it is imperative that East-Central Europe pursues efforts in defusing the adversarial situation currently in development. East-Central Europe should signal that both her allies and Russia can trust her to stand together and defend herself, whilst seeking peaceful coexistence. Trust is paramount in deterrence and crisis prevention as it facilitates mutual understanding. The loss of trust played an important role in the fall of the INF treaty. The outlined dual track approach of East-Central Europe, facilitating openness and dialogue whilst strengthening regional security and resilience, can certainly contribute to the restoration of trust and is an example of one feasible and positive way forward.


András Windt received an MA in International Relations from the Andrássy Gyula German Speaking University Budapest, Hungary. András’ research interests focus on international security policy and strategy, disarmament and non-proliferation of WMD, CBRNE risk mitigation and resilience. András recently completed a traineeship at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, Department of EURATOM Coordination, and interned with the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium.

Image courtesy of US Dept. of Defense: Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among Pershing II missiles as they are being dismantled and destroyed in accordance with the INF Treaty, January 1989.


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