The INF Treaty and Russia’s Road to War

"Russian military leaders fear that they will be defeated in any major conventional engagement, and so must rely on nuclear deterrence to prevent an enemy from taking advantage of a battlefield victory."

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Editor’s Note: Please also take a look at Tom Nichols recent piece Welcome to Russian Nuclear Weapons 101.

After many months of provocative Russian missile tests, the United States has finally accused the Russian Federation of violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty is a landmark 1987 agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States that prohibits the possession on both sides of “theater” nuclear missiles – that is, weapons with a range too short to be considered part of a stable intercontinental strategic deterrent, but too long to be considered tactical arms for use on a battlefield during wartime. The treaty doesn’t actually ban any nuclear warheads themselves, but rather only any system capable of delivering them at distances between 500 and 5500 kilometers.

In terms of the military balance between East and West, none of this matters a whit. But in terms of what it says about how the Russians (and not just President Vladimir Putin) view a future war in Europe, it’s deeply troubling.

To understand all this, we have to go back to the Cold War, and think about why both the U.S. and the USSR found intermediate range nuclear missiles so worrisome. Although nuclear theology is no longer in fashion these days, there is no way to understand the gravity and danger of what Moscow is doing without reviewing why the INF Treaty exists in the first place.

During the Cold War, the USSR’s Warsaw Pact alliance was poised directly along the borders of America’s NATO allies in Europe. No matter what might start World War III, and no matter where in the world Soviet and Western forces would first collide, Soviet planners intended to move against Europe in order to bring the conflict back to an arena of overwhelming Soviet conventional dominance. (We thought about similar moves as well.) Accordingly, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces were structured for a major offensive designed to capture swaths of then-West Germany, and then to drive on toward the Atlantic coast in the hopes of shattering NATO with a sudden, traumatic defeat.

The U.S. and NATO, of course, had no hope of stopping this kind of Soviet conventional attack. Outgunned and outnumbered, NATO’s strategy was to convince Moscow that the Alliance would have no choice but to blunt the Soviet invasion with the use of short-range nuclear weapons on the battlefield against the advancing Warsaw Pact columns. NATO’s hope was that the Kremlin, faced with no option but nuclear retaliation against the U.S. and its European partners, would realize it was gaining nothing by sparking an all-out nuclear war.

The Soviets – or at least the Soviet military – counted on NATO’s nuclear powers (the U.S., Britain and France) to make good on their threats: every Soviet military exercise until 1967 began with a simulated NATO nuclear strike. Subsequent exercises discarded this opening salvo, but all assumed eventual nuclear use, and thus stressed the need for speed and shock before the West could reach for the nuclear trigger. The Soviet regime for years promised never be the first to use nuclear weapons (as China does now, by the way), but in reality the Soviets were planning their own crippling tactical strikes on NATO communications, command and control, airfields, and other assets if they believed the military situation required them.

Both Washington and Moscow faced a conceptual problem with nuclear escalation. The Soviets, understandably, did not prefer to fight in a nuclear environment if they could help it, but NATO’s nuclear forces would be overrun in any Soviet invasion, making them “use or lose” weapons, and so Soviet success on the battlefield ran the risk of provoking the outcome they feared the most. The Americans, for their part, had tied U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to the defense of NATO, promising that escalation in Europe would lead to central nuclear war between the superpowers. This threat, however, required Moscow to believe that a U.S. president would jump from tactical nuclear war in Western Europe to strikes launched from U.S. submarines or from North America itself against the Soviet heartland.