NATO tries to prevent an arms race | In Depth | DW | 25.01.2019
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In Depth

NATO tries to prevent an arms race

NATO fears that without an INF missile ban it will be more difficult to prevent an arms race in Europe. The tensions are stirring memories of the 1980s and the Cold War. DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Like many meetings before, the NATO-Russia Council took place at the alliance headquarters in Brussels.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gave a frank account of Friday's meeting of the military alliance's NATO-Russia Council.

"There was no real progress in the meeting," he said. "Especially when tensions are high, when we have some real differences, some real difficulties, then it is important to meet." 

Read more: 'These missiles can reach Berlin,' warns Lithuania's foreign minister

There was little hope among observers that either Russia or NATO would budge from their positions on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) at the meeting. Stoltenberg again stated that Russia, with the installation of SSC-8c cruise missiles in Europe, is in violation of the INF treaty, and that this has been the case for years.

Russia has insisted that the controversial nuclear weapons systems can only fly 480 kilometers (298 miles), meaning that they fall just below the 500-kilometer range limit stipulated by the INF treaty.

A Russian soldier standing in front of a missile at a press conference (picture-alliance/Sputnik/V. Astapkovich)

Russia has insisted its weapons do not fall under the terms set by the treaty

Canada and other NATO members in Europe agreed with the US administration that Russian missiles can fly much further and that Moscow is in violation of the treaty.

 Read more: What is the INF nuclear treaty?

Former US President Barack Obama had repeatedly raised the topic with Russia during his tenure. "There were 30 talks with the Russians on this issue, but no progress," Stoltenberg said.

Read more: Europe caught in a dangerous nuclear trap

Moscow has also accused the United States of violating the treaty by stationing drones and defensive rockets in Europe that would enable nuclear warheads to reach Russia.

Last chance for the INF treaty?

US President Donald Trump has said his country would formally withdraw from the INF treaty on February 2, meaning that after six months the agreement would then be void.

 Read more: Donald Trump's INF exit: Masterminded by John Bolton, to Russia's benefit

This would allow the two signatories, the United States and Russia, to station more or develop new weapon systems. However, according to Stoltenberg, such a step does not need to be made.

"Russia can come back into compliance before February 2," he said, adding that even during the six-month withdrawal phase, a reversion to the stipulations of the treaty or amendments to it would be possible.

"We don't want a new Cold War, we don't want a new arms race...but that will be more difficult if Russia does not come back into the treaty," Stoltenberg said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tried to persuade Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to save the INF treaty during a meeting in Moscow earlier this week. Maas said European security interests are affected in "in the most fundamental way," and he called on Moscow to disarm its "violating cruise missiles in a verifiable manner."

Watch video 01:44

INF: Major arms treaty under threat

What does Russia want to achieve?

If that does not happen and the INF treaty ceases to exist in six months, the US and NATO will have to consider countermeasures and possible rearmament. The secretary-general said the alliance would examine its options, but he also said that first more efforts would be made to save the existing agreement.

Some experts believe, however, that the 31-year-old agreement has created a global situation that has become untenable for Washington and Moscow as other nations develop more advanced weapons.

The INF treaty forbids Russia and the United States from possessing any medium-range nuclear weapons but, worldwide, Iran, North Korea, China, India, and Pakistan are allowed to — and have — developed such weapons, which are viewed as a threat by Russia. Officials in the United States also questioned why China is not bound by the treaty's rules.

Reigniting an arms race?

After the divisive debate on rearmament at the beginning of the 1980s, does Europe need to prepare for another arms race? Maas has stated his opposition to such a path.

Soldiers hold a sign reading NATO soldiers against nuclear missiles at a peace protest in Bonn in 1981 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Some NATO soldiers protested against nuclear weapons in the 1980s

"Nuclear armament is certainly the wrong answer," he said in a late December interview. "Deployment of new medium-range weapons would meet with considerable resistance in Germany."

 Read more: Germany announces new global arms control project

Stoltenberg agreed that new disarmament initiatives should be the course of action rather than debates on rearmament.

"Our discussions are not always easy... but that's exactly why they are so important," Stoltenberg said. "And we remain committed to continuing our dialogue."

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