Why a nuclear-arms pact can save Europe

Russia and Trump challenge a 1987 treaty on short-range nuclear-tipped missiles. They need to listen to the person who signed the pact to understand its larger purpose. 

President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev exchange pens after signing the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty on Dec. 8, 1987.

Take it from somebody who was there.

On Sunday, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, asked President Trump to drop his recent call for the United States to leave a nuclear arms treaty that Mr. Gorbachev himself negotiated with President Ronald Reagan in 1987. The pact, which is called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, has helped keep a relative peace in Europe for more than three decades.

Gorbachev’s view about the treaty’s impact matters far more than as a firsthand perspective from history. It also reflects a growing sentiment among Russians that they can find a home within Europe rather than remain divided over issues such as nuclear threats, the Ukraine conflict, and spy scandals.

In independent polls last spring, Russian attitudes toward the European Union were more positive than negative for the first time since 2014. And more than two-thirds of Russians now seek a dramatic improvement in ties with the West.

Such views are a far cry from what Vladislav Surkov, a top adviser to President Vladimir Putin, warns about Russia’s future with the West. In a magazine article in April, he said Russia must prepare for “a century (or perhaps two or three centuries) of geopolitical loneliness.”

The INF Treaty was designed during the cold war to prevent Europe from becoming a battlefield for “limited” nuclear war. It bans nuclear-capable, ground-based missiles with a range of more than 311 miles. For nearly a decade, NATO has suspected Russia has been cheating on the treaty with upgrades to its missile launchers near Europe. Rather than negotiate a solution, Mr. Trump appears ready to leave the treaty. One possible reason: Trump wants the US to deploy such short-range missiles against China. Yet that choice need not influence the INF’s role in Europe.

Back in 1987, the INF Treaty represented more than just a necessary fix to the dangers and fears that short-range nuclear missiles pose. After two major wars in Europe during the 20th-century, followed by tense standoffs in Soviet-controlled countries during the cold war, the West and the Soviet Union saw a need to reduce all chances of war on the Continent.

Two years after the signing of the treaty, Gorbachev proposed the concept of “Common European Home,” or an association between Russia and the EU based on the mutual interest of economics and disarmament. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the idea helped set a tone of cooperation between Moscow and Western capitals for nearly a decade – until Mr. Putin took power and sought to restore Russian influence and keep a hold on power at home.

The INF dispute is only the latest issue dividing Europe from Russia. Yet its importance as a security issue should push leaders to heed Gorbachev’s warning about the treaty’s peaceful role – as well as the promise of a greater Europe at peace.

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