US missiles in Europe: how will Russia respond?

The New Geopolitics Research Network held on-line discussion “Intermediate-range Missiles in Europe: Arms Race, Conflict, Deal?”. We bring to your attention a summary of Mykola Bielieskov (Research fellow, National Institute for Strategic Studies, Ukraine) speech “Hypothetical placing of US missiles in Europe: how will Russia respond?”.

Some points and ideas for discussion on the topic «Intermediate-range Missiles in Europe: Arms Race, Conflict, Deal?»

  • Demise of INF Treaty in August 2019 given Russian blatant violations of it is another serious blow to Ukrainian security. Now Russia can credibly threaten any part of Ukraine relying on INF treaty prohibited missiles and procure them in bigger quantity as land-based missiles are cheaper than sea- or air-based missiles. At the same time Ukraine has neither proper finance nor necessary capacity to respond symmetrically to this new dimension of Russian threat.
  • As to the possible arms race in Europe after INF treaty demise. As for me the situation in next couple of years will not be as acute as it was back in 1970-s and 1980-s given smaller Russian industrial/technical potential to procure and deploy missiles of proper rangers compered with USSR. So, Europe at least initially won’t perceive as acute missile threat as it was 40-45 years ago. Plus, for Russia to openly threaten Europe with INF treaty missiles is to lay preconditions to repeat situation with Euro-missiles – but now US can place countermeasures hypothetically closer to Russian heartland and they would be more threatening given shorter flight time.
  • As for the US side of equation – US this time is also not in the same condition to start costly unlimited missile race to prevail. According to US media draft budget for Pentagon for 2022FY would be flat one – 704-708 billion – with no chances for increase under Biden given pandemics and its negative economic repercussions. Plus, different branches of US Armed Forces (first of all Army and Air Force and to lesser extent Navy) given flat budget without real chances for increase have already started this discussion whom should be primarily responsible for long-range fires at the theater of operations. Air Force attacks Army in this context. So, it’s naïve as for me to think that all long-range missiles project now under development would in the end be deployed in proper quantity. And till January 2023 at least we have Congress controlled by Democrats that are very skeptical to say it mildly to the idea of the need to invest additional funds to develop and field land-based missiles for theater of operations. That’s another reason why arms race might be not as acute or even won’t materialize. At least in Europe.
  • But even if we can imagine that Russia is that threatening with missiles as USSR and US respond in kind but now in Central and Eastern Europe than as for me, we might have Cuban missile crisis in reverse. Russia would say that given even shorter flight time than in 1980s with Pershing II and Tomahawk West this time want to lay preconditions to something like 1941 attack – but this time with missiles and fighters. Remember that before two sides come to 1987 agreement Europe was at the very brink of real world – and as Able Archer exercise in 1983 made clear – very close to the brink. Russian response could be both symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical with new missiles, operational-tactical aircraft closer to theater of operations. And asymmetrical – appeal to world community to delegitimize US steps as those more threatening to Russia than in reverse playing up feelings of peace-loving societies of Western Europe.
  • Placing missiles in Poland or Baltic states mean US readiness to escalate in case of need which in turn mean using German seaports, land infrastructure and air space which in turn mean Berlin would demand its voice being heard and we all know German stance on this issue. BTW my opinion is that this time Russia being more circumspect on missiles would try to rupture NATO solidarity given differences in position among Alliance countries.
  • First, we need to remember that according to Ukrainian Constitution there should not be any foreign military bases on our soil. But even if we can imagine US missiles on our territory than we need guarantees that US is ready to possible escalation till the very end – all out nuclear exchange. And then we remember that there is this so-called asymmetry of interest between US and Russia with regards Ukraine – so Russian threats of escalation are always more credible and credibility is everything in this game of chicken. So, the major point of concern for Ukraine is not to be used as an instrument against Russia without having real security guarantees – readiness of US to escalate for Ukraine will very end. And hypothetical placing of US missiles wouldn’t happen overnight – and this would best time for Russia to respond forcefully legitimizing it with grave security concerns.
  • If we try to imagine possible deal then I think we need proceed from the following assumption – more demands from united West would generate more demands from Russian side. First, I am certain that this time Russia would demand that all INF treaty missiles of proper range to be eliminated – not only land-based but also sea- and air-based. In other case Russia might say that having only land-based missiles eliminated and sea- and air-based preserved would mean US would continue to have asymmetrical advantage over Russia. Second, additional demands like restrictions on deployment of Russian forces might generate a major debate on European security architecture. And who knows where this kind of debate might lead – where are guarantees that Russia would not broach the idea of Ukraine’s neutrality and Western states would not find it acceptable as a part of bargain?
  • Last but not least. As we all know Russian violations of INF treaty were only one reason why US in the end walked away from treaty. Another one (and as for me major one) was Chinese arsenal of land-based missiles of 500-5500 km ranges. The biggest one in the world now and non-existent back in 1987. And there are all possibilities that Indo-Pacific region would be the prime theater of land-based missiles with ranges of 500-5500 km. There are major repercussions given this situation. First it would be difficult to persuade Russia relinquish missiles in Europe under deal with US knowing that US have the same missiles in East Asia part of which might be quickly transferred to Europe. On the other hand, Russia also needs this kind of missiles to counter China at Far East given its conventional inferiority despite all talk about friendship with Beijing. So, it might happen that all major power would concentrate INF ranges missiles at Far East and given deficit of free resources to spend Europe would be spared of major missile confrontation – not because of kind of agreement but because center of gravity of world politics now is in Indo-Pacific region.

Watch the full video of the conference “Intermediate-range Missiles in Europe: Arms Race, Conflict, Deal?” (17.03.2021) here:

Mykola Bielieskov

Research Fellow, National Institute for Strategic Studies (Ukraine)

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March 2021
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