The Crumbling of Arms Control and the Premise of “Equal Security”

U.S. President, Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev signed the treaty on 8 December 1987. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Bob Daugherty 

 By: Krystel Von Kumberg

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminating intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, is being erased. [i] Leaving the INF does not harm Russia because the U.S. cannot punish the country for testing and deploying a prohibited intermediate-range cruise missile, known as the SSC-8. By withdrawing from the treaty, the U.S. may be setting Russia on a path to accelerate its missile program in support of what one U.S. commentator calls Russia’s “half-baked nuclear threats.” [ii] Arms control is an important international norm to maintain. Abrogating the INF Treaty enhances Russia’s increasingly aggressive posture towards the West, sending the wrong message to Asian states, like China.

Moscow is calling for “equal security guarantees despite [the] West’s stance.” [iii] Russia’s Permanent Representative to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, recently stated that “today’s situation is in a way much more dangerous than the one of the Cold War years,” arguing that “common sense and responsibility for the world’s fate …[allowed] powers to take wise decisions in the area of arms control and disarmament.” [iv] Only during the détente period in which arms control became paramount did rationality predominate, as the late 1960s brought-about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Over time, however, the Soviet Union was not given perceived “equal security guarantees.” For instance, Russia mourns the fact that the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was rendered weak, in favor of NATO enlargement, hindering the formation of a successful collective security framework. The premise of “equal security” is a slippery concept that cannot flourish in a heated psychological political environment. For instance, NATO’s stance has been interpreted in Russian media as being, “please be content with second class security.” [v] NATO spokesman, Piers Cazalet, indicated the alliance had, “no intention of deploying new land-based nuclear weapons in Europe,” and that Aegis Ashore missile defense sites in Romania and Poland are compliant with the INF Treaty. [vi] Russia, however, asserts that these weapons can be converted into offensive missiles, highlighting the stark nature of the security dilemma that without clear rules may spiral.

Some Western political scientists perceive NATO as an alliance that has outlived its utility. Stephen Walt argues that “instead of basing our foreign policy on a presumption of permanent partnership, it is time for Europe and the United States to begin a slow and gradual process of disengagement.” [vii] Walt argues that the U.S. and Europe share no common threat, and because nothing is permanent he implies the alliance is ultimately useless. However, downgrading historic allies does not cater to a cohesive foreign policy. This is exemplified by the Bush administration’s failure to convince Turkey, a NATO ally, to use Turkish territory as a base of operations during the Iraq war. On the other hand, in 1999 the Clinton administration, through careful diplomacy, successfully used Greece as a base during the war in Kosovo. [viii] International politics cannot merely be viewed through the lens of hard power; strong alliances and European soft power can be a powerful Russian deterrent. Additionally, in order to deal with China, a more pragmatic approach to Russia will be vital, as their bilateral relations increasingly blossom. [ix] Russia will use this to their advantage, especially as Moscow and Beijing work towards disuniting the transatlantic alliance. [x]

Despite Walt’s claims, Russia’s stance towards the U.S. indicates that Russia is not only a European security threat. Putin’s recent State of the Union address was layered with veiled defensive, coercive, and offensive threats. He first highlighted Russia’s primarily defensive-outlook and acknowledged the U.S. as a “global superpower” that Moscow is not willing to provoke. He then criticized the U.S. for “destructive and erroneous policies” in today’s changing world and included a clear threat: “Russia will be forced to create and deploy types of weapons that can be used not only in respect of those territories from which the direct threat to us originates,” but rather where “the centres of decision-making are located.” [xi] Indeed, a recent Russian state television broadcast listed several targets Moscow would hit in a nuclear war, claiming Russia’s hypersonic missile, still in development, would hit US mainland in 5 minutes if launched by submarines. [xii]

The danger here is underestimating these threats as mere rhetoric, and failing to recognize the unveiled threat towards the U.S. The problem is the worldviews of Washington, Moscow and Brussels significantly differ. Washington is focusing on China and in the process misinterpreting how interrelated international relations are, as Russian-Chinese ties deepen. Russia perceiving itself as possessing all of the privileges of a great power will increasingly prove its willingness to defend itself through offensive measures. Brussels understands that it can no longer rely on U.S. support, and at the same time will most likely not take any more missiles from the U.S. because it does not want to become a proxy for heightened great power conflict. Leaving the INF Treaty puts Europe in an uneasy position—it is left with the stark choice of either engaging in a deployment race with Russia or refusing redeployment of US missiles on European soil, leaving Europe less secure against Russian coercion. Philip Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro illustrate that unlike the Bush administration’s second term after Iraq, when the U.S. pivoted back to a more multilateral European approach, “there will be no similar pivot under Trump.” [xiii]

A major new arms race should be averted. The security dilemma taking shape can be forestalled with a replacement treaty, as European states would likely oppose the deployment of new missiles on European soil. The New Start Treaty is due to expire in February 2021, its extension would maintain the reduction of strategic weapons for the U.S. and Russia. The same fate may be on the horizon for this treaty, which would most likely trigger a new nuclear arms race. There is no such thing as “equal security,” [xiv] but we know that Arms Control, despite deceiving actors, ultimately is the lesser of two evils.


[i] Anon, “Putin threatens to target US with missiles in State of Nation speech,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,

[ii] Tom Nichols, “Mourning the INF Treaty: The United States is Not Better off for Withdrawing,” Foreign Affairs, March 4th 2019,

[iii] Anon, “Russia calls for equal security guarantees despite West’s stance — diplomat,” Tass, March 2nd 2019,

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Anon, “Russia calls for equal security guarantees despite West’s stance — diplomat,” Tass, March 2nd 2019,

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Stephen M. Walt, “NATO isn’t what you think it is,” Foreign Policy, July 26th 2018,

[viii] Paul Glastris, “Turkey Shoot; How Bush made enemies of our allies,” Slate, March 17th 2003,

[ix] Franz-Stephan Gady, “China to Send 100 PLA Personnel to Russia for S-400 Air Defense System Training,” The Diplomat, March 7th 2019,

[x]Marc Champion, “China, Russia Join for Push to Split U.S. From Allies,” Bloomberg, February 16th 2019,

[xi] Anon, RFE/RL, “Putin threatens to target US with missiles in State of Nation speech,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,

[xii] Anon, “Russia state news announces US targets that Kremlin would hit in war,” February 25th 2019,

[xiii] Philip H. Gordon and Jeremy Shapiro, “How Trump Killed The Atlantic Alliance; And How the Next President can Restore it,” Foreign Affairs, February 26th 2019,

[xiv] Anon, “Russia calls for equal security guarantees despite West’s stance — diplomat,” Tass, March 2nd 2019,

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