The United States has threatened to pre-emptively strike Russian missiles aimed at Europe. Its stated justification is that the missiles in question are medium range and thus in violation of a 1987 anti-missile treaty. They were initially singled out in the treaty because they could be rapidly prepared for launch and arrive on target with minimal or no warning time. That meant that it could knock out European retaliatory capability, undermining the deterrent effect of Europe-based systems.
Washington’s ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, said the U.S. remained committed to finding a diplomatic solution but was prepared to consider a military strike if Russian development of the medium-range system continued. She made it clear that the onus of diplomacy would fall on Washington’s European allies. Presumably, this means Germany, which has a somewhat functional relationship with Russia. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said he would address the issue with his NATO counterparts tomorrow.
The U.S. has expressed concern about these missiles before, but this is the first time it has threatened to destroy them. It’s unclear what a pre-emptive strike would involve, but it’s safe to assume Russia would consider it an act of provocation and could escalate conflict accordingly.
Our initial reaction is that it is a test of NATO. Most of the U.S. comments appear to be directed not at Russia but at its European allies, many of which, Washington believes, have been overly permissive about Russian missiles. If NATO is content to allow what the U.S. claims are violations of a Russian treaty commitment, then it says a lot about NATO. The U.S. has made military action contingent on the failure of the diplomatic route. And here, the U.S. expects the Europeans to take the lead. In a sense, the U.S. is trying to force Europe to take this seriously. And it’s reminding its allies that it won’t shrink from unilateral action, however unlikely the prospect may be.
Russia’s intentions are difficult to parse. The threat posed by these missiles does change the balance of power in Europe somewhat. Russia seemed to think that apart from the expected rhetoric from the U.S., and absent anachronized notions of nuclear deterrence, nothing would happen. From the American point of view, a treaty violation is significant. But the incident raises perhaps an even more important question: If the Russians see the nuclear balance as archaic and threats to Europe as outmoded, then why is it deploying this missile? The development of the missile likely indicates that the Russians do not see this as archaic. For the U.S., threatening to strike the Russian sites is meant to galvanize the Europeans and drive home the fact that in geopolitics, nothing is archaic.