A New Cold War? U.S. Withdrawal from Nuke Treaty Worries Europeans

U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to back his country out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has European leaders worried about a return of the Cold War. But the decision may have less to do with Russia and more to do with China. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Chinese "carrier killers" during a 2015 military parade in Beijing.

Chinese "carrier killers" during a 2015 military parade in Beijing.

Foto: POOL/ AP

An old, daunting Cold War-era expression has found its way back into everyday language -- "arms race." German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has admonished against it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to stoke it. And U.S. President Donald Trump seems to relish in boasting about what his country would do to its nuclear arsenal if a new arms race were to begin: "We'll build it up until they come to their senses."

It's been years since the people of Germany and Europe have thought this much about nuclear warheads capable of wiping out entire cities. For quite some time, the only people busying themselves with terms like "range of fire," "retaliation scenarios" and "disarmament treaties" have been the military and a handful of specialists.

And once again, it was Trump who triggered the new gamesmanship with just a few incendiary remarks. A little over a week ago, he let the world know that he intended to pull his country out of another international pact . Following the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal , Trump has now set his sights on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which paved the way to the end of the Cold War and resulted in the scrapping of thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles. It was considered an important milestone in disarmament policy.

"We're going to terminate the agreement and we're going to pull out," Trump said during a campaign event in Nevada. National Security Adviser John Bolton later said the U.S. was "going to be doing a lot of consultation with allies in Europe and Asia." The Americans justified their withdrawal by arguing that Moscow had not adhered to the treaty. But presumably it's China they're worried about rather than just Russia.

Under the INF, the U.S. and Russia may not deploy land-based, medium-range nuclear weapons capable of striking targets between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,420 miles) away. The deal was one of the great achievements of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who put an end to a bitter arms race when they signed the treaty in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 8, 1987.

The treaty helped calm fears that had reached a fever pitch, especially in West Germany. Nothing made the Germans more anxious than the prospect of a nuclear strike on German soil. In the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the deployment of American Pershing II ballistic missiles in Germany, with which NATO had responded to the Soviet Union's SS-20 missiles.


With that in mind, politicians like Maas have pledged to fight for the treaty "with all diplomatic means." In a recent phone call with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo, Maas emphasized that Trump's move impacted the "core interests of European security architecture." But the Trump administration has often proven unmoved by European protestations.

A guessing game has begun: What are Trump and Bolton really up to? The mustachioed national security advisor is widely regarded as a seasoned strategist who doesn't have a high opinion of disarmament treaties or other international commitments. Instead, he would prefer to see the U.S. rely entirely on its own strength -- on unilateral power politics.

Last summer, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen got the first hint that Washington might back out of INF during a conversation with Bolton. Yet just three weeks ago, her American counterpart, James Mattis, said at a meeting of NATO defense ministers that any decision by the U.S. would be made "in concert with our allies, as always." But Mattis isn't in Trump's best graces. So it comes as no surprise that the news from Nevada arrived in Berlin without any prior consultation.

Even days later, the German government still didn't know whether the U.S. president meant to only suspend the treaty and force a renegotiation or fully withdraw. In the case of a withdrawal, the treaty wouldn't expire until six months after an official announcement from either side. As such, there is some that a one-on-one conversation between Trump and Putin -- scheduled for Nov. 11 on the sidelines of celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the truce that ended World War I -- could help. Bolton visited Moscow last week and visited with Putin for an hour and a half. He reiterated that the Russians were not sticking to the agreement.

This is hardly a new accusation. It was raised by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, as well. In February 2017, the U.S. government identified what it viewed as the problem: a Russian cruise missile with the designation 9M729, known to the U.S. military as the "screwdriver," or SSC-8. The Russians insisted the weapon had not been tested for the prohibited range. They then countered that it was Washington that had violated the agreement by deploying missile defense systems in Romania and Poland. The Russian accusation, however, seems contrived.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton


The U.S. has yet to show their allies irrefutable evidence proving that Moscow is in violation of the treaty, saying they want to protect intelligence sources. But the available information is apparently good enough for even German Defense Minister von der Leyen to express "significant doubts" about the Russians' adherence to the agreement.

The American accusations are based on intercepted phone calls, reconstructed account transactions and satellite images. They apparently have a good idea of what's going on, from the cruise missiles and the launching platform to the Russian companies that manufacture each piece of hardware, the coordinates of the tests and attempts by Moscow to hide everything.

'A New Strategic Reality'

After his talk with Putin, Bolton said in an interview with the radio station Ekho Moskvy that since Russia wasn't holding up its end of the bargain, and since China, as a nuclear power, isn't a party to the treaty, it didn't make sense for Washington to remain in the INF. It means, he said, that there is "only one country bound by the INF treaty and that was the United States."

This may sound straightforward, but it failed to answer the question as to what Washington's primary motivation is for abandoning the treaty. Is it really because Moscow has allegedly violated the pact? Or was it because China is not bound by the agreement? Journalists in Moscow tried in vain to get a clear answer from Bolton but failed. Still, even if he is cagey, is right about one thing: There is, he said, "a new strategic reality out there."

This is largely due to China. During the Cold War, the country was considerably weaker both economically and militarily than it is today. But meanwhile, China has become one of the geopolitical rivals to the U.S.

In its most recent National Defense Strategy, the Pentagon identifies China as a "strategic competitor" even before it mentions Russia. For years, China has been massively expanding its armed forces, especially its navy and its missile arsenal. International experts estimate that Beijing already controls the largest number of ballistic missiles in the world. They are central to China's military doctrine, according to which Beijing strives less for a global presence -- like the U.S. -- and more for a sphere of influence in its region . And China can rely on its geographical advantage: It has a huge mass of land on which it can station land-based, medium-range weapons -- the ones that both INF signatories are banned from having. The U.S., on the other hand, is left to rely on military bases and allies to exert its influence in the western Pacific.

The most powerful Chinese rocket, known as the "Dongfeng," or "East Wind," can be equipped with conventional and nuclear warheads. The DF-21D medium-range missile, which China first unveiled three years ago, attracted considerable attention and earned itself the nickname "carrier killer" among experts because it could disable U.S. aircraft carriers, which had long been largely invulnerable to Chinese weapons systems.


More than half of China's missiles would be banned by the INF if Beijing were a signatory. With a range of up to 5,000 kilometers, they can reach U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan, including the Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa, or the strategically important island of Guam. By contrast, American forces are only able to hit Chinese targets with air-to-land or sea-to-land missiles, according to the Australian military expert Adam Ni. "The deployment of short or intermediate ground-based missiles to, say, Japan would add to U.S. capabilities in the region and erode the Chinese advantage, which has been built over decades," Ni recently told the South China Morning Post.

'When the Time Is Right'

This could be an important reason why Washington wants out of the INF. Bolton had already urged the U.S. to take this step back in 2011, arguing that the threat from China was growing. Harry B. Harris, Jr., a former commander of U.S. Pacific Command and the current U.S. ambassador to South Korea, told the Senate Committee on Armed Services last March: "We have no ground-based (missile) capability that can threaten China because of, among other things, our rigid adherence ... to the treaty."

For China, the agreement -- which limits the power of its competitors -- has nothing but advantages. But there was no talk of any such benefits when a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry spoke out about the planned U.S. exit from the INF. Beijing had followed Trump's and Bolton's statements very closely, she said, but China was sticking to the "defensive character" of its military doctrine. "China won't let itself be blackmailed by any country."

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signing the INF treaty at the White House in 1987.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan signing the INF treaty at the White House in 1987.

Foto: Stringer ./ REUTERS

Beijing did not react to Trump's idea that China and Russia would be "smart" to accommodate the U.S. and cease production of such weapons. That would be "impossible in such a short amount of time," said the disarmament expert and former general Xu Guangyu. The treaty, he said, was signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. He understands the fears of the Europeans, who again feel exposed to a new Russian threat, he said. "But I don't believe that a global or a multilateral treaty can be reached right now."

Xu recommended that for now, the regulation of medium-range missiles be addressed by the United Nations Disarmament Commission. "When the time is right, bilateral agreements can then be expanded to include multiple states," Xu added. When the time is right -- that presumeably means: When China has other means for defending itself and asserting its strategic interests.

During her visit to Beijing last week, German Defense Minister von der Leyen also got to know China's position a little better. While Bolton was a guest at the Kremlin, she was sitting at a ceremonial dinner with Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission. Xu complained bitterly that Trump and Bolton had again mentioned China in the same breath as Russia while talking about the INF. But his country has nothing to do with it, he protested.

In a long discussion that continued through 15 courses, Xu explained to von der Leyen why Beijing needed its arsenal to protect its external borders. There's no other reason for the extensive armaments program, he said, adding that the Germans had to understand one thing: His country still stands by international agreements -- while the U.S. no longer does.

But Washington isn't the only country bothered by the fact that China isn't bound by the INF. Russia is too. There is also a general feeling in Moscow that Gorbachev was duped back in 1987. The agreement prohibits land-based systems, but not sea- and air-based ones. That meant that Russia, a country with a powerful land-based military, had some catching up to do. When Russia fired dozens of cruise missiles into Syria in 2015 from ships in the Caspian Sea, the Kremlin wanted one thing above all else: to demonstrate to the world its new military capabilities.

A Lot to Discuss

To this day, Moscow still mourns another treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited missile defense systems and which was terminated by the U.S. in 2001. The ABM Treaty indirectly guaranteed that a nuclear aggressor would be threatened with counterstrike destruction. From Moscow's perspective, the pact stood for the equality of the world's two largest nuclear powers. Putin still rarely misses a chance to remind everyone that the Americans' exit was one-sided, according to the Russian military expert Alexander Golz. The U.S. withdrawal, Golz says, was "a psychological trauma" for Putin.

Ironically, the man who delivered the news of the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM to Moscow in 2001 was none other than John Bolton, at the time an under-secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs at the U.S. State Department. Bolton happily recalled his 2001 trip to Moscow during last week's visit, joking about how the media had called the ABM Treaty a "cornerstone of international strategic stability." That wasn't true at all, he said.

Bolton's victory lap won't make further negotiations between the U.S. and Russia any easier. There's still a lot to discuss. After all, the adversaries aren't only bound to one another by the INF, but also by an agreement aimed at limiting long-range nuclear missiles: the "New Start" pact. That treaty is scheduled to expire in 2021 if it's not extended for another five years.

In Donald Trump's eyes, the "New Start" agreement has one major defect -- it was signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Last year, Trump described the 2010 agreement as a "bad deal." Should he be re-elected for another four years, he would likely pull the U.S. out of that treaty too.

The likelihood that the U.S. pulverizes the INF long before that is fairly high. Which means that the world is heading toward a pre-1972 situation, before the first nuclear disarmament treaties were reached. Nuclear weapon states would be able to expand their arsenals as they please.

Bolton is still trying to reassure the Europeans: Washington isn't considering a rapid deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles on their continent. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is likewise uninterested in undue handwringing. "I don't foresee that allies will deploy more nuclear weapons in Europe," he said last Wednesday. "We don't want a new Cold War, we don't want an arms race."

There they were again, those words from an almost forgotten time. Chances are we'll be hearing them again very soon.

By Christian Esch, Matthias Gebauer, Dietmar Pieper, Klaus Wiegrefe and Bernhard Zand

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