The West still needs arms control

A belligerent Russia is threatening to quit two key treaties. The West must walk a fine line.

The West and Russia are back to the days of arms-control alphabet soup. Cold-war treaties with awkward acronyms are again in the news – but this time it's because Russia threatens to ditch two major ones. That raises the question, are these treaties still relevant?

With Soviet-style belligerence, the Russian bear of today is using its powerful paw to swipe at conventional- and nuclear-arms pacts.

On July 14, the Kremlin announced it will suspend participation in the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, or CFE for short. The 1990 treaty mandated equal ceilings on key equipment such as tanks and aircraft for the now-defunct Warsaw Pact and NATO. It covered all of Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals.

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Russia is also threatening to break out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF. That was the first treaty to ban an entire class of nuclear weapons. Recently, Russia has talked cavalierly about installing such missiles in its Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania.

Russia's motivations are as varied as the country is vast. On a large scale, Moscow is reasserting itself in a world dominated by the US.

It also has security concerns. A key one is NATO creep on its western border, especially in the form of a planned US antimissile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic (which prompted the Kaliningrad response). But it's anxious about other flanks – in the south, a perceived Islamist terrorist threat, and to its east, China's nuclear arsenal.

Then there's the bluster factor. President Putin is looking out for No. 1 at home. Standing up to the "big bad West" makes him and Russia look good as elections near.

A unilateral break from a cold-war treaty is not unprecedented. In 2002, President Bush pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, arguing the US needed flexibility to protect itself from nuclear missiles launched by rogue states (indeed, that break allows him the flexibility to pursue the missile shield in Europe – designed to deflect future nukes from Iran). Besides, Mr. Bush argued then, the Soviet Union is gone; the cold war is over.

On a certain level, Russia can apply similar arguments to the CFE and INF treaties. The Russians, too, want flexibility to deal with new threats. And the cold-war fear of Russia pushing its borders to the English Channel is outdated. Meanwhile, both sides have lived up to INF and eliminated that class of missiles.

Still, the suggestion that Russia might jump back into the business of aiming missiles at Europe is alarming. And former Warsaw Pact members (and victims) shudder at the thought of a defunct CFE, in which NATO could no longer monitor and inspect what Russia is doing with its weapons next door.

Meanwhile, suspicion and distrust are building, not declining, between the US (also Britain) and Russia. That argues for preserving these treaties. And the volatile world needs to see examples of countries sticking to arms treaties, especially nuclear ones.

The trick for the West is to distinguish between Russian bluster and real need. It must not be pushed around by threats and swagger, but it must respond to legitimate concerns. The right balance will result in preserving or updating these treaties – but not dumping them.

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