Why Intermediate-Range Missiles Are a Focal Point in the Ukraine Crisis
In seeking to explain why there are currently 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, commentators have invoked everything from the role of NATO expansion in the 1990s to the history of Kievan Rus in the 9th century. But a more recent development deserves discussion as well: America’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019.
If nothing else, Moscow has been eager to highlight this factor. Russia’s proposal for ending the current crisis stipulates that the United States “not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas allowing them to reach [Russian territory].” One need not take Russian rhetoric at face value to consider how America’s potential reintroduction of formerly banned missiles to Europe influences Russia’s decision-making on Ukraine. Examining the United States and Russia’s differing responses to the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty highlights the interconnectedness of these events and the failure of the nations to communicate. While Russia’s threats are fundamentally tied to maintaining influence over Ukraine and deterring NATO expansion, a renewed focus on arms control can still play a role in finding a peaceful resolution.
The Fate of the Treaty
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, signed in 1987, which eliminated a specific delivery system: surface-to-surface missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, henceforth referred to as theater-support missiles. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2019, citing a series of Russian violations while also emphasizing the benefits that the new missiles could provide the United States in Europe and, perhaps more importantly, Asia.
The treaty’s end paved the way for the United States to reintroduce these missiles to the battlefield, this time as conventional strike assets instead of the nuclear-armed versions that had dominated the Cold War. Because the U.S. Army had previously established long-range precision fires as its top modernization priority, the associated loosening of missile restrictions created an innovation opportunity for U.S. forces. Moreover, China was never a signatory, which had allowed it to become a world leader in intermediate-range missile technology. This missile asymmetry had been a criticism of the treaty for years, likely influencing the U.S. decision to withdraw.
Since the United States withdrew from the treaty, the Army has embarked on numerous projects at varying ranges, including a moderate range increase from its current systems to a 500–600-kilometer range precision strike missile and a more strategically designed 2,700-kilometer range hypersonic missile. Additionally, future long-range strike capabilities have begun to influence emerging U.S. military doctrine, which emphasizes their importance in neutralizing anti-access systems. Overall, while the treaty’s demise may have been controversial internationally, domestically the U.S. military was quick to capitalize on its newfound freedom. Instead of internal debates on the strategic implications of reintroducing these missiles, the public military discourse centered on which service would have employment and development responsibility. This implied that the new missiles’ eventual employment and forward basing were foregone conclusions.
Adding to this perception, U.S. analysis covering the treaty’s demise focused heavily on the benefits of theater-support missiles. In 2019, a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment research team conducted a cost-benefit analysis on deploying these new missiles, arguing that the decision “may contribute to a cost-imposing strategy against China and Russia by pressuring them to invest in expensive defenses and resiliency measures rather than devote those same resources to power-projection capabilities.” The report added that the employment of missiles in Europe and the Pacific could “compensate for the vulnerabilities of U.S. air and naval forces in potential conflicts involving capable opponents such as China and Russia.” European pundits also weighed in on the immediate tactical benefits that conventional missiles could provide to NATO. Christian Mölling and Heinrich Brauß, members of the German Council on Foreign Relations, contended that theater-support missiles “could threaten Moscow’s command facilities and limit Russia’s military ability to act.” Luis Simón, an international security professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels, and Alexander Lanoszka, an international relations professor at Waterloo University, made a similar argument, noting that missiles were “likely to become the center of gravity of deterrence and security in Europe in a post-INF and maturing precision-strike context.” I’ve even put forward this argument myself, writing last year that rocket artillery proliferation in Europe can deter Russian aggression in the Baltics.
The Western narrative is straightforward: Theater-support missiles provide the United States and NATO with new capabilities to better deal with a resurgent Russia and a rising China. But this discourse overlooked the strategic implications of employing these missiles, and neglected any potential Russian response.
The Russian Response
On Feb. 2, 2019, the day that the United States officially suspended its treaty obligations, President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with his defense and foreign ministers to discuss Russia’s way forward. Putin informed his ministers that the Russian response to the treaty’s demise would mirror that of the United States but warned that Russia “must not and will not be drawn into an arms race.” On Aug. 2, 2020, the day that the United States officially withdrew from the treaty, Russia proposed that the United States “declare and enforce a moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.” In October 2020, Putin expanded on the details of this proposal, adding verification measures for missile defense systems and reinforcing his earlier claim that Russia would not deploy any controversial theater-support missiles as long as NATO members did not.
Consequently, some European leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have questioned America’s dismissal of the Russian offer. While not technically supporting the Russian proposal, Macron pressed for the need to open the lines of communication with Russia. “Has the absence of dialogue with Russia made the European continent any safer?” he asked, “I don’t think so.”
Reintroducing theater-support missiles to Europe creates the potential for nuclear escalation, primarily based on a target nation’s inability to determine whether an incoming missile is armed with a nuclear warhead. This potential warhead ambiguity can lead to a nation misidentifying a missile in flight, creating a response dilemma that could lead to inadvertent escalation. This issue drives Russian policy. Recently, the Russian military newspaper Red Star invoked this dual-use missile dilemma in a controversial proclamation: “Russia will perceive any ballistic missile launched at its territory as a nuclear attack that warrants a nuclear retaliation.” Senior Russian military officers explained the dilemma in plain language: “there will be no way to determine if an incoming ballistic missile is fitted with a nuclear or a conventional warhead, and so the military will see it as a nuclear attack.” In June 2020, Putin signed an executive order outlining Russia’s basic nuclear strategy. Specifically, he described the four scenarios that would justify nuclear weapon use. In addition to a direct nuclear attack and the identification of an incoming ballistic missile, these included an attack “against critical governmental or military sites” that “undermine nuclear force response action,” and a conventional attack when the “existence of the state is in jeopardy.”
In this context, even without the potential nuclear threat, missiles may represent an existential threat for Russia, one that Putin believes calls for a nuclear response. Vladimir Isachenkov, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that Russia’s proclamation follows a new Russian “nuclear deterrent policy that envisages the use of atomic weapons in response to what could be a conventional strike targeting the nation’s critical government and military infrastructure.” This Russian response complicates any missile strategy that the United States may formulate for the European theater, raising doubts about the strategic benefit of deploying new missiles to Europe — conventional or nuclear. Overall, while the United States may have envisioned a future where theater-support missiles provided it with a relative advantage over its old adversary, Russia made it clear that it viewed the reintroduction of the formerly banned missiles as an escalation, one with nuclear implications. Therefore, even before Russia massed roughly 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border, there was a clear strategic gap in communication between the United States and Russia.
Missiles in the Ukraine Negotiations
In October 2021, just as the current Ukraine crisis began, Putin expressed his frustration with the international community regarding his proposed missile moratorium: “Has anyone even reacted to our statement that we will not deploy this kind of missile in the European part if we produce them, if they tell us that no one will do so from the United States or Europe? No. They never responded.” He built on these comments in a December press conference, saying “Are we putting our rockets near the borders of the United States? No we’re not. It’s the U.S. with its rockets coming to our doorstep.”
By bundling an arms control agreement with its proposal for ending the Ukraine crisis, Russia has forced a conversation on the subject. But does this mean that it is seriously looking for an agreement? Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis, argues it is not: “Moscow has not only been asking for things that it knows it cannot attain, but it has been doing so in a manner that will ensure that it cannot attain them … By publicizing its demands and refusing to unbundle them in ways that might achieve compromise, Russia has made its diplomatic effort appear more performative than genuine.”
But there is an alternative reading. Russia could be demonstrating how seriously it perceives the missile threat. By providing an achievable demand in its negotiations, Russia can secure a minor diplomatic victory and compromise on the “non-starters,” while still addressing one of its significant security concerns. Russia has created room for the West to make concessions, and thereby potentially give Russia the opportunity to defuse the situation without appearing to “back down” from the West.
Whatever Russia’s intentions, the missile conversation is now taking place in a more formal setting. On Jan. 10, 12, and 13 there were meetings between Russian and Western officials to discuss Russia’s published peace proposals and find common ground. At the first of this series of meetings, held in Geneva, the concerned parties made little progress. As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov noted in a news conference following the event, “Unfortunately we have a great disparity in our principled approaches to this. The United States and Russia in some ways have opposite views on what needs to be done.” While the crux of the disagreement is NATO expansion, the parties broached the topic of arms control, specifically concerning the future employment of missiles in Europe.
The topic reemerged on Jan. 12 at a Russia-NATO Council meeting. After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko built on Putin’s December comments and reinforced the importance of Russia’s proposed missile moratorium. Specifically, he argued that neither Russia nor the United States would benefit from a return to Cold War missile tensions and that accepting a missile agreement “would meet the interests of all countries — not only Russia, but the European states as well.” Grushko further echoed Macron’s missile moratorium concerns, challenging Europe, not the United States, to take action to avoid a Cold War missile resurgence. “On this issue,” he stated, “Europe should declare its stance and prevent such a scenario from happening in the current security situation.” In response to a question on this matter, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that “NATO Allies made it clear in the meeting that we are ready to schedule a series of meetings addressing a wide range of different topics, including missiles and reciprocal, verifiable limits on missiles in Europe.” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman made similar remarks, explaining that while many of the Russian propositions were “non-starters,” arms control is an area that Russia and NATO may be able to “work together on.”
Sadly, the standstill continued in the final talks hosted in Vienna. Russia’s representative, Alexander Lukashevich, was disappointed in the lack of progress, noting that if Russia does not
hear a constructive response to our proposals within a reasonable time frame and an aggressive line of behavior towards Russia continues, we will be forced to draw appropriate conclusions and take all necessary measures to ensure strategic balance.
He further stressed “the need to obtain these legally formalized security guarantees for us is unconditional.”
After the week of talks, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan summarized the events and outlined the U.S. position moving forward. Specifically, he noted that the United States was “firm in our principles and clear about those areas where we can make progress and those areas that are non-starters.” He explained that “the discussions were frank and direct … They gave Russia things to consider.” When asked about limiting missiles in Europe, Sullivan responded that the United States is “prepared to discuss reciprocal limitations on the deployment of missiles, as long as Russia is prepared to fulfill its end of the bargain and that there’s adequate verification.” Accordingly, while a quick agreement is unlikely, missile restrictions appear to be a potential area for compromise amongst all parties.
A fundamental question remains, however. Can an agreement on a singular issue, in this case a missile moratorium, defuse the Ukraine situation? Kofman contends that “while a discussion on future missile placement, mutual reductions in military activity, and other measures might count as a diplomatic success for Moscow, it is unlikely that this is enough to satisfy Putin.” Thus “after the meeting in Geneva, the United States was unable to determine if the Russian diplomatic effort was genuine or cover for a planned military operation.”
While it is folly to discount the potential that Putin fully intends to use force to achieve his strategic goals, it is also unwise to dismiss a potential path to resolution, a compromise that may let all parties save face. The return of theater-support missiles, brought on by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty’s demise, challenges Russia’s security and undoubtedly influences the country’s decision-making. Since the treaty’s end, Russia’s actions have sent a clear message that it would not let intermediate-range missiles reemerge in Europe. However, the response from the West not only failed to address Russia’s concerns but treated the reintegration of these missiles as a foregone conclusion, focusing almost exclusively on the relative advantage that their deployment could provide to the United States and NATO. While NATO expansion may very well be the primary driver of Russia’s actions toward Ukraine, the return of these strategic missiles is also a factor that the United States should consider.
Consequently, while reversing NATO expansion is a non-starter for many in the West, a potential arms agreement concerning the formerly banned missiles is not only a realistic goal, but it is something that all parties have expressed a willingness to work towards. In this context, if successful negotiations occur, missiles will be the likely focal point. Consequently, the United States may have to concede the tactical and operational benefits that theater-support missiles could provide in Europe for the potential strategic victory of defusing the tensions on the Ukraine border.
Brennan Deveraux is a major in the U.S. Army and is currently attending the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is an Army Strategist and an Art of War Scholar specializing in rocket artillery and missile warfare. He has completed combat deployments to Iraq and the Horn of Africa and has two defense-related master’s degrees, focusing his research on military adaptation and emerging technology management.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defence