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Europe caught in a dangerous nuclear trap

January 20, 2019

The treaty banning intermediate- and shorter-range missiles is beyond saving. The Cold War is back with a vengeance, and for Europe it's even colder and more dangerous than 30 years ago, writes Christian F. Trippe.

Caricature of INF Treaty negotiations by DW cartoonist Sergey Elkin

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is not one to envy right now: He wants to try to save a treaty between the US and Russia that is beyond saving. The INF treaty is dead. Signed in 1987, the agreement oversaw the elimination and banning of short- and medium-range missiles. These are weapons first developed by the USSR and then later by the United States. Given their limited range and nuclear capability, it would have been Europe, not the US, to suffer the radioactive consequences.

That's why such a ban has always been a matter of life or death for Europeans. It led to a two-tiered NATO policy towards the Soviet Union: Get rid of these weapons or have the same ones pointed at you. A negotiated disarmament was always on the table.

Read more: Hot topics on the table at Lavrov-Maas meeting in Moscow

Sergey Lavrov & Heiko Maas in Moscow
When it comes to nuclear weapons, Russia and the West are nearly as far apart as everImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Tass/S. Savostyanov

A treaty's last gasps

The brutal logic worked, leading to the INF treaty between the US and USSR. It made both countries simply contractual partners — an important point in understanding why intermediaries today, such as Maas, find themselves coming up short. The INF treaty ended years of expensive arms development and emotional debates. Now, the treaty is gasping its last breaths, and it would need much more than a diplomatic defibrillator to survive.

Read more: Putin ready to deploy new hypersonic missiles

DW's Christian F. Trippe
DW's Christian F. TrippeImage: DW/B. Geilert

That's because Russia, the legal successor of the USSR, has been violating the treaty for years by developing banned delivery systems. President Donald Trump wasted little time in announcing the US withdrawal from the treaty. At the urging of NATO's European members, the US offered Russia a final deadline: Put an end to banned weapons programs by February 2, or the INF treaty is over.

"Russia can save the treaty," Maas told his Russian counterpart. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov replied that he had no reason to believe the US was interested in serious dialogue.

Read more: What will 2019 bring for Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

Both sides want to free themselves of the treaty's shackles. Both sides are looking strategically down the line, confronted by China's growing status as a superpower. Unlike the US and Russia, China is not bound to any arms treaty governing medium-range rockets. The European Union is, however, beholden to it and well aware of that difference. Unlike four decades ago, the US is no longer the West's reliable hegemon, and Donald Trump is too volatile to predict. Consultations jointly searching for global solutions are on hold until further notice.

Read more: NATO, US pressure Moscow on INF treaty

A continent at a strategic dead end

Making matters worse, the EU finds itself in permanent crisis. Brexit has paralyzed both sides of the English Channel. France is in dangerous political waters at home. And Germany comes off as the sick man of Europe when it comes to security policy. The German government now wants to focus squarely on arms control and draw international attention to the threats of cyberwarfare and autonomous weapon systems. That is commendable, but does not get us out of the strategic dead end that the EU has fallen into more than a quarter century since the end of the Cold War.

EU security interests have not changed much over the decades: The European continent is not to be a battlefield, nor a bargaining chip.

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