Not only in Washington and Moscow, many analysts and experts argue these days that the impending demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty forecasts the end of arms control in general and a new round of nuclear competition – with the big difference that the new arms race will be less about numbers and more about quality, and that it will involve China as well. But it does not have to be that way. There are at least five underexplored arms control options that could save the legacy of INF.
Option 1. Walk in the Woods
Could be termed the ‘German Grand Coalition’ proposal as it comes from two leading German politicians, both respected foreign and security policy experts in the two major parties currently ruling Germany. Roderich Kiesewetter (CDU) and Rolf Mützenich (SPD) suggested to move Russia’s treaty-busting missiles beyond the Ural Mountains – that is to the Asian side of Russia. While somewhat resembling a proposal that some of the older ones will remember as the 1982 Nitze-Kvitsinsky “Walk in the Woods” formula, the Kiesewetter-Mützenich proposal, stressing the need to strictly verify Russian compliance with such arrangement, comes as a quid pro quo. In exchange for Russia’s geographical restraint, the two policymakers suggest America allows for inspections of its disputed Aegis Ashore missile defense installation in Deveselu, Romania. The drawbacks to this proposal seem obvious: U.S. officials have time and again rejected the idea of bringing Aegis Ashore into the equation; in turn, Moscow will be anything but hell-bent on alienating China by moving its new INF systems into the Asian theater.
Option 2. Concessions in the European Theatre
Perhaps a slightly more viable proposal which does not involve the contentious missile defense issue comes from the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Accordingly, NATO, as a bloc, would declare not to deploy any new INF-range ground-launched missiles in Europe as well as additional (permanently deployed) new nuclear capabilities in Europe so long as Russia is removing the SSC-8 missile from Western Russia and pledging not to deploy any other INF-prohibited systems in the European theater. Most likely not legally binding, such an understanding would somewhat mirror similar pledges NATO and Russia made in the conventional realm in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act and at the sidelines of the 1999 OSCE Istanbul Summit. Again, the downside of this proposal is Russia’s close relationship with China and the question of how to verify the absence of such weapons systems.
Option 3. Nuclear Pause Agreement
Back in 2017, a former high-ranking U.S. military suggested a framework that very much focuses on crisis stability by making sure that mating INF-range systems with nuclear warheads could not take place in a matter of hours. Under such a framework, nuclear warheads for sub-strategic (below 5,500 km) ground-launched and air-launched systems alike (including missile defense interceptors and drones) would be stored at least a day separation by ground transportation away (and a couple of hours by aircraft). Obviously, the question of verification would be extremely sensitive and would have to make sure that the strategic forces of the United States and Russia remain outside the framework. Another problem comes with the exclusive focus on nuclear warheads. While militaries on both sides are aware of the increasing conventional firepower of both the United States and Russia, only a few seem to understand the implications for strategic stability. In the end, further fielding conventional-tipped delivery vehicles could as much have a negative impact on stability, particularly in Europe.
Option 4. INF à trois
While quite prominent in the media due to Trump’s direct reference, including China in an ‘INF à trois’ arrangement seems not a very promising option, at least from the outset. Over 90 percent of China’s missiles – essential for defending Chinese homeland and adjacent waters – fall in the ranges banned by INF. Washington would have to offer a lot to convince Beijing of the merits of joining such an endeavor. Perhaps the only way to get China on board would be to broaden the scope of a trilateral arrangement and to allow for unprecedented flexibility. In concrete terms that would mean to include see- and air-based systems, i.e., those systems where America still enjoys superiority vi-à-vis Beijing, to add missile defense interceptors and drones as well as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems. The latter systems are particularly relevant in regional theaters, for instance in Eastern Europe and in the South China Sea. Finally adding strategic systems, a trilateral U.S.-Russian-Chinese framework could have equal ceilings for strategic (beyond 5,500 km) and sub-strategic (below 5,500 km) systems, with verification and the freedom to mix.
Option 5. Cruise Missiles Ban
Finally, the most ambitious – and also least realistic – option would be a global ban on cruise missiles, thus directly addressing a weapons category deemed most destabilizing due to its flight characteristics. Aside from the fact that modern militaries rely heavily on standoff weapons for various purposes, the fact that the number of states with standoff capabilities is continuously growing would make such an enterprise extremely hard to achieve.
As all five options demonstrate, the end of INF does not have to be the end of arms control. There are still six months left to explore a number of diplomatic opportunities. And even if the treaty ends, there are ways to build on INF’s legacy. The options are there – it is up to bold and responsible politicians to turn forward-looking proposals into viable policies.