The first public statement on Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was made in 2014, by the Obama administration. On the Russian side, politicians – including Vladimir Putin – began openly questioning the validity of the treaty as far back as 2007; US intelligence officials believed that Russia had already started to develop systems that violated it. But, despite the US move, the European allies, and Germany in particular, remained strikingly absent from the debate. The German government did not comment on the issue or prepare its public for the possibility of the treaty ending.
The reasons for this were manifold: Berlin considered a renewed missile debate to be toxic for domestic politics, and the government’s new, stricter, stance on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine had already caused disquiet among voters. Then came the refugee crisis, and the country again sank under the weight of domestic squabbles. German politicians silently hoped that the United States would deal with the issue, sparing them the debate. Donald Trump’s victory did not cause this approach to change, nor did Berlin step up when German, French, Dutch, and other intelligence services verified US accusations of Russia cheating. The writing was on the wall, and the crisis was inevitable – yet Berlin did not move: this time Bundestag elections were around the corner.
In February 2018, the US issued the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which clearly pointed towards Russian non-compliance. The NPR also outlined the American strategy: to increase diplomatic pressure on Russia on compliance, while working on new means to counter the Russian threat. However, the missiles to counter Russian land-based cruise missiles that the NPR envisioned would only be ready by 2030. For Germany, this meant it could continue business as usual, and hide the looming crisis from the public. Instead of preparing its domestic audience for the Nachrüstungsdebatte (counter-armament debate) to come, Berlin did nothing. Trump’s intention to withdraw from the INF treaty, articulated in October 2018 and then postponed for 60 days, was then a harsh awakening – and showed the worst the Berlin political class can offer.
It is not just the usual suspects: Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands are equally concerned and demand answers
Several German politicians called for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons in response, or for Germany to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – as if collapsing NATO deterrence or signing a dubious treaty among irrelevant states would make Russian missiles go away. Foreign minister Heiko Maas immediately called for a diplomatic initiative for the sake of an initiative: after initially discussing the resurrection of the INF verification mechanism, he has since moved to want Russia to deploy its cruise missiles east of the Urals. The first idea is sound, but is contradicted by Maas himself ruling out in advance any possibility of rearming if Russia fails to deliver. But if Russia knows already that continuous non-compliance will have no consequences, it will not return to compliance. The US has tried since 2014 to reinstate the inspection regime, but in vain. If Maas were serious, he would have sought methods other than angry op-eds. Deploying these missiles beyond the Urals is pointless: Iskander launchers can be airlifted to Europe within hours. The proposal only reveals that the minister and his cabinet are detached from military realities. Sticking to a dogmatic pacifist line, the Social Democrat minister of finance Olaf Scholz suggested reducing the defence budget in order to save money for renewed pension increases.
In this situation, only the Christian Democrats have at least not committed to an erratic Sonderweg (unique German way), and tried to align the German debate with the wider consensus among NATO allies. However, this debate is spearheaded by the younger generation of members of parliament (such as Paul Ziemiak, Roderich Kiesewetter, and Norbert Röttgen), not by the chancellor or government ministers (although Angela Merkel not standing for re-election ought to mean she has fewer worries around popularity). All this shows that Berlin has not yet come to terms with the seriousness of the situation and that wider parts of the political establishment do not feel threatened by Russia’s build-up of nuclear-capable carrier means. This, in turn, is causing further suspicion in European capitals that actually feel threatened. It is not just the usual suspects like Poland, the Baltic countries, and Romania. Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands are equally concerned about the situation and demand answers.
It is not a matter of whether NATO should counter-deploy; instead the debate should focus on how to counter-deploy, and who should do this. For the moment there is no indication that the US would deploy intermediate-range systems to Europe other than the next generation cruise missiles deployed on submarines. But this means, first, that European NATO members will lose influence over US nuclear warfare in Europe because these missiles are not ‘based’ in Europe (they patrol in international waters around Europe), and hence are hardly subject to discussions with host countries in NATO’s nuclear planning group.
Second, the US can withdraw these easily in a crisis, and they do not physically stand in the way of any possible Russian incursion or pre-emptive strike into Europe. In the time of the Pershing missiles, parts of the US deterrence posture were physically present in Europe. If the Soviet Union had attacked, it would probably have triggered a nuclear reaction. With submarine-based deterrence off the European coast, along with some rather symbolic freefall bombs in western Europe, the balance of risks and losses looks significantly different to how it did in 1985. But there is no idea in Europe of how to properly relink American and European security, what the burden-sharing within such an arrangement would look like, or what kind of capabilities the Europeans would have to increase on their own in order to change the stakes for Russia. Without an answer to these questions, Russian nuclear superiority over Europe will be a done deal. That prospect is much scarier than the arms race German Social Democrats are so obsessed with.
For now, no one expects that anything serious is going to come out of Berlin. That said, all attempts to secure strategic autonomy or European strategic identity have now been exposed as idle talk. If Germany utterly fails on European security, why should other countries act on it? Berlin might find another empty catchword that conceals its inaction from its own domestic audience (most likely ‘arms control initiative’). But on the European stage, diversionary efforts will not do. Rearmament will happen, even if in a selectively bilateral manner.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.