geopolitics Governance and Multilateralism

A post-INF Europe: Leeway for a deeper approach on defence

Article written by Fabio Seferi and Giorgia Miccoli

When listing the most important stages that conducted to the end of the Cold War, one surely thinks at the reproaching between the USSR and the US, made possible by the Raegan Reversal and by Gorbachev’s “new thinking” approach. Among the successful moves that from the 1983 crisis led to the 1989 end of the bipolar confrontation, the series of meeting between the two heads of state must surely be take into consideration. For many writers, the roots of the end of the Cold War may be found in the slow but deep intellectual change that took place in the Soviet Union as early as in 1956[1]. More realistically, others link the 1989 to the influence exerted by Gorbachev since 1985. In the same way, Raegan’s policy decisions from 1984 to 1986 increased the chances of mutual understanding between Moscow and Washington[2].

The real transformation of the relations between the two sides begun to be shaped in 1986, when confrontation started focusing on arms control and Germany’s future. The second half of the 1980s saw the triumph of the USSR and the United States’ new affinity. Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva in November 1985. The Geneva summit’s failure was followed by the Reykjavik’s one. It was only in 1987 that the two superpowers reached a timely success and signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The historical roots of the INF go back to the 1970s, when the US started pledging for a control of intermediate-range missiles. In the fall of 1985, the idea of balancing between the number of the all Soviet and American intermediate-range warheads begun to spread and led to the later signed INF treaty.

In other words, the treaty, a pillar to Euro-Atlantic security, required both countries to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometres by June 1991. By the agreed deadline, Moscow and Washington destroyed an overall of more than 2,500 missiles, signing the first eradication of an entire group of nuclear weapons[3]. Today, also former Soviet territories like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are part of the signatories.

However, this cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security is deemed to be scrapped tomorrow (2 August) after Washington has accused Moscow in the past few months to have not respected the INF treaty in recent years. According to allegations dating back to the Obama administration, it seems that Russia has been violating the treaty at least since the 2014 Ukraine crisis overture, deploying tactical nuclear weapons with the aim of intimidating the West (and former Soviet countries aligned with the West).[4]

The bone of contention regards the deployment of a prohibited type of missile, the so-called SSC-8, a ground-based cruise missile that opposes the spirit of the INF treaty. The missile is considered as dangerous and threatening to European nations, transforming Europe once again into a stage of nuclear confrontation. To this end, last February US President Donald Trump first announced that his country was pulling off from the treaty, to which the Kremlin answered with a rebuttal of all accusations. The move of the United States was supported by all NATO allies. However, the other members of the Alliance (especially those in Europe closer to Russia) prefer to rediscuss and modify the treaty, contrary to its cancellation. Diplomatic efforts during these months have not led to any improvement in the safeguard of the INF treaty. Thus, the most probable outcome is the tear of the treaty.

But what does this mean for (Central-Eastern) Europe? In an attempt to look into a hypothetical crystal ball, we could expect the intensification of European defence and military joint actions in Europe’s eastern flank. Even if this will most probably happen under the aegis of NATO – through which European allies are already being involved into joint military exercises, as the Enhanced Forward Presence – new windows of opportunity can be opened for a genuinely European security and defence approach.

In the past year, many European leaders and public officials are pushing for a more coherent, common, and integrated defence approach, thus posing the political grounds for a further deepening of the Union. Considering EU history, an incremental approach to EU policy expansion is the one most likely to succeed: countries have not been willing to cede to disruptive positions. A sectoral topic like the INF treaty – i.e. (intermediate-range) nuclear warheads – could provide a possible leeway for a stronger EU-level approach on defence matters.

[1]J. Suri, Explaining the End of the Cold War: A New Historical Consensus?, Journal of Cold War Studies 2002 4:4, 60-92. 

[2] J. Suri, Explaining the End of the Cold War: A New Historical Consensus?, Journal of Cold War Studies 2002 4:4, 60-92. 

[3] NATO’s position on the INF Treaty, available on

[4] A. E. Kramer and M. Specia, What Is the I.N.F. Treaty and Why Does It Matter?, The New York Times, 01 February 2019.

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