A spectre has returned to haunt Europe: missile defence and deterrence. Washington’s NATO ambassador perhaps shockingly called on Russia to halt development of new nuclear-ready missiles and warned that the US could “take out” the Russians’ missiles system if it becomes operational.
Experts suggested envoy Kay Hutchinson might have misspoken yesterday or simply “did a bad job” – nothing new these days for US diplomats - in trying to reproduce what the US has preached for years: adjust existing strike capabilities, develop new capacities to match threats or use the good old carrot-and-stick approach of economic and political pressure.
But doubts have mounted in Brussels since US Congress only last year proposed a bill under which Washington would no longer be bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty if Russia remains in violation. It could be a modern replay of the Euromissile crisis.
Although Hutchinson later backtracked, claiming she was “not talking about pre-emptively striking Russia” but rather matching up capabilities in case Moscow does not return to INF Treaty compliance - the damage was already done.
But the point is, you do not simply "take out" missiles without having a war.
It’s true that this isn’t anything particularly new. Washington and Moscow have disagreed since year dot about the Treaty.
A relic of the Cold War, it was hashed out between Gorbachev and Reagan in 1987 and aims to prohibit land-based nuclear capable systems with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
Back in the old days, it was the flip-flopping between Soviet SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe and NATO-deployed Pershing IIs that caused headaches, as the too short warning time of missiles fired rendered the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) void - so both were banned by the agreement.
Since then, dangerous tit-for-tat accusations have popped up here and there. The eve of a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels this week is the most recent surfacing of the simmering disagreement. Eastern European diplomats are concerned – it is their territory that lies in the (potential) crossfire.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg thinks Russia still hasn’t provided “credible” info about its missiles, accusing the Kremlin of not respecting international commitments.
In this summer’s Brussels Summit Declaration, the allies concluded that this lack of credible information would mean that it is “most plausible” that Moscow is breaking the agreement.
Meanwhile, faced with these repeated allegations of violating the deal, Russia finally fessed up to the existence of a 9M729 missile system. But further details on things like area of deployment were not forthcoming.
US foreign policy has not exactly been known for its tact over the last two years. The recent comments are most likely to fuel the paranoia of Russian defence hawks and give them a lot of scope to mash them into Kremlin’s own world view.
Russia’s foreign affairs chief Sergei Lavrov, earlier this week “kindly” for a proper definition of what a treaty violation would look like, suggesting that missiles deployed in Romania and soon Poland are also in breach of the agreement.
NATO is currently torn between Eastern European fears and members that are not as keen to poke the Russian bear.
It is very unlikely that the Kremlin get compliant all of a sudden, there is no mechanism to force them to come back to the table – so the INF treaty, product of a crucial moment in history – is essentially dead. But trashing these treaties makes no sense.
The decade long discussion does reveal one deadlock: missile defence, no matter which side is using it, may actually spur proliferation instead of discouraging it. That may mean no peace, no war, but a situation of constant anxiety.