State of disunion: Europe, NATO, and disintegrating arms control

Splits between Germany and Poland vis-à-vis Russia signal deeper divisions in the alliance, ones which threaten European security

Vladimir Putin threatens the West – once again. In his state of the union speech last week he warned that “Russia will be forced to create and deploy new types of weapons” that could be used not only against Europe but also the United States. Sabre-rattling is not a new tactic by Putin, even if his announcement comes close to an arms race declaration. This is Russia’s response to the US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The risk of a dangerous escalation is real. For now it is still the political, rather than military, fallout that may prove devastating for Europe’s interests. And the two key countries that stand to be most affected by this looming crisis are Germany and Poland. But – critically – the signs are that they are hardly up to the challenge. Putin’s Russia may well be the only beneficiary of their failure.

It is folly to believe Europe’s choice is between nuclear rearmament or doing nothing: NATO could respond both militarily and diplomatically.

The US decision to abandon the INF treaty is not surprising. That it took it without orchestrating a joint NATO follow-up plan says a lot about Washington’s changing approach to the once-solid notion of “shared security’ with Europe. There has arguably been no clearer proof of how little Donald Trump cares about Europe’s unity – at a time when it is increasingly challenged by external powers. America’s European allies granted support for his decision to suspend the treaty, but they have no idea how to achieve security in the face of the rocket games played by both the US and Russia. It is on this question that Germany and Poland have most obviously come up short, at a time when they need to have a shared approach in order to shape the NATO response.

Germany is still traumatised by the rearmament debate of the 1980s, when the deployment of American Pershing II and Cruise missiles led to massive protests and the creation of a powerful pacifist movement. Any response to Russia’s violation of the INF treaty which involves deploying American rockets on European soil (either in Germany or in Poland) is a huge taboo for a large part of Germany’s political class and society. Its foreign minister, Heiko Maas, declared from the outset that rearmament is not the answer – which no doubt appeals to a domestic audience but is a nonsense in terms of strategy, even if, as Maas suggests, the ultimate goal should indeed be a new multilateral arms control treaty. The chances for such a new treaty are close to zero as neither the US or Russia appear at all interested in considering one. 

Meanwhile, Poland’s national-populist government has made plain it considers that Russia’s non-compliance with arms control agreements requires no new diplomatic invitations. Warsaw’s idée fixe is a bilateral strategic partnership with the US which would involve a permanent military base (the so-called “Fort Trump”), arms contracts, and cooperation on some international issues. The Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, recently made headlines by telling Der Spiegel that, given the collapse of the INF treaty, he would support the deployment of American missiles in Europe. The ministry quickly corrected that comment, saying Czaputowicz had spoken about the presence of the US nuclear weapons in Europe in general, not new rockets. But there is little doubt that Warsaw would indeed welcome them. Nor is there much doubt as to how Germany would react to such a development. 

Putin is very well aware of all those tensions and is excited to exploit them. A case in point is the US missile defence system Aegis Ashore, which is designed to defend America against Iran. Its elements are being built in Poland and are supposed to become operational in 2020. Putin claimed in his state of the union speech, once again, that the system violates the INF treaty and threatens Russia, as mere software changes would allow the installation to be used for offensive purposes. This argument convinces many, not at least in Germany. A claim frequently made in the European debate is that abandoning the missile shield could bring Russia back into the fold on arms control. This has all the makings of another intra-European battle, as Poland views the US missile shield on its soil as core to its security partnership with America.

This is all dangerous for NATO and for Europe’s political unity. The main threat to Europe’s security comes not from Russia’s bombs but from a further disintegration of the West. This is exactly what Putin wants to achieve. His recent moves are part of a hybrid war stirring political conflict within Europe. Europeans who turn on one another as they seek answers only play into his hands. To believe that Europe’s only choice is between nuclear rearmament and doing nothing is folly: NATO could find ways to respond both militarily – in conventional terms – and diplomatically, through an arms control initiative. But what is more important than the substance of NATO’s reaction is that the alliance should display a common approach. 

The INF treaty used to be a cornerstone of European security and a more than symbolic expression of the strategic bond between Europe and the US. Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it banned the deployment in Europe of medium-range missiles (500-5,500 kilometres), whose existence had presented a massive risk to European population centres and threatened to decouple Europe’s security from America’s. The treaty removed the danger of a regional nuclear war in Europe. But in recent years Russia has repeatedly violated the agreement by developing a new generation of missiles exceeding the allowed range of 500 kilometres. However, the reason the US is withdrawing from the treaty is unrelated to Russia: it has much more to do with China not being a signatory, and having stockpiled medium-range missiles that threaten the balance of power in the Pacific. Washington wants to have the freedom to counteract Beijing’s military build-up, whereas the INF ban only ties its hands. 

The implications of this for Europe are severe. Countries in central and eastern Europe worry that Russia will use the collapse of the arms control regime to strengthen its nuclear posture on NATO’s eastern rim. The current balance of conventional and nuclear forces between NATO and Russia already plays largely to Moscow’s advantage: while there are only 180 American tactical nukes deployed in Europe (including 20 in Germany), Russia already has at least ten times more. 

There are no easy solutions here. No US medium-range missiles (which do not exist yet) are likely to be deployed soon in Europe, and nor is a multilateral arms control agreement likely to be signed. Likewise, a “Europeanisation” of France’s nuclear deterrence, which is sometimes proposed by analysts as a solution, will prove to be an illusion of no less proportion than all-weather US guarantees. Europe is entering yet more unstable and dangerous times. The worst that Europeans can do is to walk into them divided. As much as they fret about the widening gap between the US and the European Union, the new splits appearing within Europe – not least between Germany and Poland – deserve no less attention.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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