I ’m old enough to remember the excitement that most of the world felt when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles — better known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It was one of those epoch defining moments, with two seemingly implacable enemies, having stared each other down across the so-called Iron Curtain, and having engaged in a costly and potentially disastrous arms race, actually concluded that it was all rather pointless and certainly too dangerous to continue, and that a much better idea — and indeed a perfectly feasible one — was to sit down and come to an arrangement that benefited both sides, and made nuclear confrontation far less likely.
The result was a treaty, signed by the leaders of both countries in 1987, which eliminated missiles with a range of 500-5,500km, fired from land-based launchers. The purpose of this treaty was to guarantee (as much as such guarantees are possible) the security of Europe, which until that point had become a focal point of possible nuclear confrontation between the two sides, with American BGM-109G ground-launched cruise missiles based in Great Britain, West Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherland, and Soviet SS-20s missiles based in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, as well as on the territory of Russia.
Yet here we are, just 30-odd years later, and that treaty has now vanished in a puff of smoke. But the truly astonishing thing about this is not so much that it is now dead. Nor is it that we have headed back to the situation that existed prior to 1987, only this time even worse because — in my view — the United States is under the control of deranged neoconservatives (nothing conservative about them by the way) who are quite incapable imagining a world in which the US does not have full spectrum dominance, and who certainly don’t possess any of the kind of rational thinking and political savvy that the Reagan administration possessed. No, the thing that really staggers me is the reaction of European leaders and the European media to an event that in one foul swoop threatens to shatter the security the continent has enjoyed as a nuclear-free zone for nearly a third of a century. What reaction? Crickets and tumbleweed.
I’ll comment on that more in a moment, but let me first say something about why this treaty is now dead.
According to Washington, the participation of the United States in the Treaty has been suspended because Russia has allegedly breached its terms with the development of a particular missile — the 9M729 — which they say has a range in excess of the 500km maximum permitted by the treaty. For its part, Moscow has refuted the accusation — even going so far as to invite Mike Pompeo to a public exhibition of the missile to see for himself — but has itself accused the US itself of breaching the Treaty by the placement of the Aegis Ashore missile-defence system, along with Mk-41 Vertical Launching Systems, on the territory of Romania and later this year Poland, which can be fitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles (with a range exceeding 500km). Who is right?
This is not actually a difficult question. One doesn’t even need to discuss the relative merits of these claims and counter-claims to come to the answer. The proof in the pudding is in the words of the US President, Donald Trump, who having accused Russia of violating the Treaty, then made the following comment:
“I hope we’re able to get everybody in a big, beautiful room and do a new treaty that would be much better…”
Remember, these comments were made just after the US had announced its suspension of the agreement, not before. In other words, after saying that the US was walking away from the Treaty, and after saying he was doing so because the other side was violating it, in the next breath he said he wanted to sit down and talk about it. What’s going on here?
The first thing to note, is that this is just another example of the way Trump does business. And when I say “does business”, I mean that everything he does in life, whether negotiating a New York property deal, or talking about a nuclear arms treaty, is done in the same way. Someone (I can’t remember where I read it) said that if you really want to understand Mr Trump, what you have to get about him is this: he simply doesn’t have a moral compass in the ordinary sense of right and wrong; no, his “moral” compass is entirely driven by a sense of winning and losing. Right for Mr Trump is winning. Wrong for Mr Trump is losing. That’s it.
And what he was clearly doing in accusing the Russians of violating the Treaty, then announcing the pullout, then talking about sitting down together in a “big, beautiful room”, was treating the issue of nuclear arms proliferation and security in the same way that he treats everything: just another “Art of the Deal”. Had he really wanted to sit down in a big, beautiful room to discuss the deal, I understand there are plenty such rooms in Washington and Moscow, or even in any number of other capitals around the world that this could have taken place. But no, in his usual crass and cack-handed way, he threw a grenade into the room, expecting that this would put him in a strong position to get what he really wanted.
Lest you be under the impression that this is just Mr Trump doing what Mr Trump does, well yes and no. He is merely an extreme version of what US Governments have been doing for years now, having given up doing diplomacy somewhere around the turn of the century. In Reagan’s day, the US had some extremely capable diplomats. Now they don’t have them because they don’t need them. Geopolitics is conducted by sanctions, threats, regime change, armed proxies and bombs.
But the second thing to note is his use of the word “everybody”. He’s not just talking about the US and Russia here. “Everybody” includes the Chinese. See, the problem the US had with the INF Treaty is that it was made between the only two countries who possessed the capability to produce vast quantities of those weapons at that time. But now of course China does have that capacity, and it does indeed have those weapons. And America — quite understandably from a geopolitical standpoint — doesn’t very much like that. My guess is that the Russians don’t particularly like it either. But instead of sitting down in a “big, beautiful room” with the Russians to try to work together to persuade the Chinese to enter into negotiations to include all three countries in the Treaty, like a bull in a china shop (pardon the pun), he charged into the “big, beautiful room” and wrecked it completely. Expecting to gain leverage over the Russians, instead he merely antagonised them to the point that they have announced their withdrawal from the Treaty, taking us back to the pre-1987 situation — only worse because the US no longer has any grown-ups left who are capable of thinking and acting rationally, and talking with others on equal terms.
But back to the Europeans. The INF Treaty is chiefly about preserving security in Europe. Pre-1987, the threat of confrontation on European territory was very real. This is why the whole of Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief when Reagan and Gorbachev signed their deal. Missiles which once faced each other across the divide, which could have destroyed Europe and Russia, were removed and destroyed. What’s not to be welcomed about that?
So you might have thought that now that the Treaty has been broken, by a US elite who don’t do diplomacy, and who are essentially playing a game of chicken, that European leaders and the European media would be up in arms. After all, it’s European, not American security which is essentially at stake here. But other than the odd sniffle here or there, there’s been no great outcry and no great outrage that Mr Trump and his neocon handlers have just undone in a moment the work that their wiser and better predecessors spent years negotiating.
Does it really need to be spelled out to European leaders and the supine European media what’s actually at stake here? Perhaps it does.
In case they missed it, the Russians have already stated that since they now consider the INF Treaty to be null and void, they will be developing a number of land-based missiles with a range significantly more than 500km, using their existing air and sea-launched missiles, Kalibr and Kinzhal. The Kalibr is a supersonic missile with a 990-pound warhead or nuclear payload, that can perform evasive mid-flight manoeuvres, instead of making a straight-line approach, and which can accelerate from a cruising speed of Mach 0.8 to Mach 3, descending to just 4.6 meters before hitting its target. The Kinzhal (dagger) is reckoned to be the world’s first hypersonic missile, capable — so it is said — of reaching speeds of Mach 10, and again able to perform evasive mid-air manoeuvres. Both missiles are said to have a strike range of up to 2,600km, which if you measure from Kaliningrad, basically covers the whole of Europe. Not one European country possesses anything that would have the remotest chance of stopping such fearsome weapons.
Although the Russian Government has stated that it will be developing these weapons with immediate effect, they have also said that they will only deploy them in the event that the US recommences stationing its own missiles on 500km+ missiles on European soil. The question is, are any European leaders so stupid that they will actually allow the US to station these weapons on their soil? Unfortunately, the recent history of these great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies — to quote the immortal words of Boris Johnson — rather suggests that there are.
Somehow, European leaders seem to be quite capable of believing that by hosting US missiles on their territory, they will increase their security. Yet, with missiles like the Kalibr and Kinzhal pointed back at them, all they will have succeeded in doing is painting whacking great crosshairs on their territory. And so once again, the spectre of nuclear catastrophe, hangs over Europe.
Is it possible to wake these people up? Is it possible to get through to those who blindly support the United States, even when its leadership shows that it cares for US geopolitical interests, and doesn’t give two hoots about European security as it plays its game of nuclear chicken with Russia and China? They don’t even have the excuse that this was done by a President whom they really like. They hate Trump. In which case, why are they not kicking up a terrific stink at the fact that this President, in his contemptible way of dealing with the nuclear question like he was haggling over a piece of land, has just returned us to a situation that we all celebrated being rid of more than three decades ago? Do they relish the idea of crosshairs on their territory? I’m not sure I have the answer to that. Any ideas?