No sooner did the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty expire on August 2, Moscow launched a propaganda offensive to shift attention away from the threats its missile programs pose to both European and Asian security. The United States formally suspended its participation in the Cold War–era arms control treaty last February and then exercised its legal right to withdraw fully at the beginning of August because Russia had been systematically violating the INF and refused to acknowledge its responsibility under this document. Meanwhile China has built hundreds of intermediate-range ground-launched missiles (i.e., the class of weapons that the US and Russia were legally forbidden to develop under the INF) to threaten Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and US bases across the Asia-Pacific region.
Already in late 2018, Moscow established the propaganda line that the US charges about Russian transgressions were groundless and merely a pretext for Washington to continue “violating” the treaty by its deployments of missile-defense interceptors in Poland and Romania (Kremlin.ru, December 18, 2018). And last month, President Vladimir Putin asserted that Moscow could easily counter any future US deployments of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) in Europe but would refrain from doing so if Washington did not deploy any ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) of the type hitherto banned by the treaty (TASS, August 18, 2019). On this basis, Moscow kicked off its propaganda campaign to keep such missiles out of Europe (Kremlin.ru, August 21)—even though the US and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had already pledged, on June 26, not to deploy these weapons on the European continent (Nato.int, August 2).
Of course the Kremlin’s seemingly benevolent peace-loving propaganda line concealed the serious extent of Russia’s violations under the INF. According to NATO members, as of early 2019, Moscow had already deployed four full battalions of the non-compliant Novator (9M729) ground-launched cruise missile, plus one reserve battalion (Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, RFE/RL, February 10). So the transatlantic alliance’s restraint had, in fact, allowed Moscow to threaten all of NATO entirely uncontested, which Washington found to be unacceptable, thus precipitating the latter’s ultimate withdrawal from the treaty.
On the eve of the INF’s termination, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov admitted that Moscow had, in fact, “begun our own scientific-research and experimental design work on systems that, we reckon, could be created within a relatively short time,” in anticipation of potential future US deployments (Interfax, August 1). So, in other words, Moscow was gearing up for a new arms race with Washington long in advance of August 2, when the treaty officially expired.
Concurrently, the Donald Trump administration has prioritized East Asia and China as the source of the greatest threats it confronts. As such, it has announced its intention to deploy GLCMs to this theater, including in Japan, to counter the Chinese (and presumably North Korean) threats. Thus, when the US tested a land-based version of the Tomahawk missile (which is relatively easily developed from the original sea-launched prototype) on August 19, Moscow dropped all pretense of its benevolence and immediately announced a program to build new missiles to counter the United States. Putin complained that the ground-launched Tomahawk test proved Washington had long been preparing to violate the INF, if not overthrow it. And he charged that this new missile would soon be deployed to Poland and Romania—possibly without even informing NATO (Kremlin.ru, August 21). The Russian president immediately ordered his military (one suspects it was not unprepared for this order) to formulate a new threat analysis and take “comprehensive measures for preparing symmetrical [i.e., a GLCM] response” (Kremlin.ru, TASS, August 23).
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu simultaneously announced that, the United States has been raising the military and political stakes in order to weaken Russia’s positions in both the West and the East (i.e., Europe and Asia). Hence, not only will Russia reinforce its troops in Europe and the Far East and conduct more exercises, but if Washington builds missiles in the Far East (even if they only threaten China but not Russia), Moscow will follow suit (Mil.ru, August 21).
It is imperative to properly understand what this means: In Europe, an arms race is now clearly underway, with Russia aiming to resist any US or NATO effort to gain escalation dominance. Russia’s goal is, therefore, to ensure that it is not prevented from maintaining an uncontested nuclear threat against all of Europe east of the Rhine. That much is clear.
But in Asia, the implications of these Russian moves are no less portentous. Moscow promises to build missiles to threaten Japan and South Korea, assuming Washington follows through on its intention to deploy missiles on the Japanese archipelago and at other bases in the Asia-Pacific. Put another way, Russia is ready to position itself in defense of China and to directly threaten Japan and South Korea even if the US intermediate-range missiles deployed in the Asia-Pacific theater don not threaten Russian territory. Inasmuch as China intends to itself continue building such missiles and not participate in any international arms control talks, the region may be about to witness a three-sided arms race, with Moscow and Beijing claiming a sovereign right to threaten Tokyo and Seoul while denying the two US allies their right to defend themselves. These trends reveal just how much the developing Russo-Chinese military alliance in Asia is strengthening (see EDM, July 30). Finally, since many of the future intermediate-range missile deployments in Asia will be perceived as threatening to North Korea (especially given Pyongyang’s mindset and threat assessment), resolving the Korean nuclearization issues will become that much harder.
Moscow and Beijing, in no small measure, brought this outcome upon themselves. By building intermediate-range GLCMs to ensure that their neighbors were at risk, they generated an intolerable threat to Washington and its regional allies. And in Russia’s case, by pursuing these missile programs covertly, it fueled and then validated everyone’s worst suspicions about Moscow’s intentions. Returning to some sort of arms control process in Europe and/or Asia looks highly implausible at present. And the consequences of that fact will almost certainly make themselves felt in the near future.