Missiles in Europe: Back to the Future?
Publisher's Column
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
Address: Office 103, 17, Bldg.1 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 119017, Russia

How to Avoid a New Trap

A Little Bit of History

It would be appropriate to recall the political situation that surrounded the previous missile crisis. The United Stated had suffered a strong military and political defeat in the Vietnam War that was condemned by the majority of Europeans. The energy crisis of the early 1970s drove allies further apart. The taking of American hostages by Iran and new outbreaks of Arab-Israeli hostilities distracted Washington’s attention from the Old World. The general impression was that the U.S. was drifting away. 

Meanwhile, the drive for a relaxation of tensions, initiated by Germany and France in the 1960s, was gaining momentum in Europe (It would be fair to remember Winston Churchill who proclaimed this policy back in 1953-1954 when he saw that fierce confrontation limited Great Britain’s possibilities). The Soviet-American détente of the early 1970s spurred cooperative efforts in Europe and gave a chance to overcome the Cold War and, therefore, the structured military-political confrontation between the two camps.

It was perilous for all and yet more beneficial for the West which spent a much smaller portion of its GDP to sustain it.  

Western Europe received the biggest advantage as it relied (or pretended to rely) on the American “nuclear umbrella” and troops in Europe where they were expected to ensure strategic linkage with the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The “umbrella” and the troops, which generated  income for the host regions, allowed European countries not only to cut defense spending but even to make some extra money. Americans ritually urged their European allies to make bigger contributions to NATO’s budget but, as a rule, the latter simply weaseled out. They could get away with it quite easily since tensions had subsided. In exchange for military protection, Americans got the loyalty of their allies and the feeling of moral satisfaction. But détente made Europeans less inclined to listen to Washington’s instructions, and the whole construct began to burst at the seams, frightening an entire generation of politicians who were linked to it intellectually, morally and often materially.  

The Americans then began to fuel tension by mounting a human rights campaign. Experts on both sides of the Atlantic, who had made their careers on confrontation, started to look for ways to renew (or “reset,” in modern parlance) it in the key military-political field. Europeans got worried about the weakening strategic link between the Old and New Worlds and waning American nuclear guarantees. All this was happening at a time when military confrontation was visibly becoming history.

The United States had created a new generation of medium-range nuclear weapons: Pershings and cruise missiles. The Soviet Union, which was deeply involved in the arms race and even went ahead at some point, started to deploy what the West dubbed SS-20 missiles. They were  created accidentally when the new SS-16 solid-fuel intercontinental strategic missile “refused to fly” but proved quite effective for shorter distances without one stage. And although there was no strategic necessity, the Soviet Union began to produce and deploy them in Europe which had by then put its mind at peace. It was the simple arms-race-dominated logic: if a weapon has been created, it must be put into service to keep the manufacturing plants busy. Fearing to lose U.S. strategic guarantees, Europeans got scared even more, while the Americans got the long-sought pretext for producing and deploying new missiles. On both continents, Atlantists, advocates of a strong NATO, which needed constant systemic confrontation to keep going, got a chance to strengthen the alliance.      

It is hard to imagine now, but back then the issue of missiles topped the European agenda for years. I myself took part in those debates with vehement fervor of a youngster. Then the absurdity of it all became obvious. At the peak of its strategic power, the Soviet Union felt besieged (with the American missiles playing not the least role in this) and got involved in Afghanistan, falling into Washington’s trap. I remember how Americans rejoiced at the opportunity to crank up their “Soviet military threat” propaganda.     

In order to resolve the crisis, short- and intermediate-range missile talks were started. But, as almost always the case of disarmament negotiations, they only made things worse. The sides had their reasons to stand firm and pile up their trump cards — missiles. In their propagandistic zeal, both Soviet and Western officials tried to convince themselves that the threat was more than real, thereby further militarizing politics.

In the end, the Soviet Union, which was sliding into a multidimensional crisis, gave up and signed the INF Treaty which eliminated medium-range missiles entirely. Moscow also agreed to scrap efficient Oka tactical missiles which were not covered by the treaty. Russia is now replacing them with Iskander systems, albeit at a heavy cost. But most importantly, the ebbing tide of confrontation got a strong boost to last for another ten years.

Is History Repeating Itself?

One may laugh or cry, but the situation in the last several years resembles that in the late 1970s. Having suffered a series of defeats, the United States is cutting its presence in Europe and looks like an increasingly unreliable ally. The NATO bond, which was artificially sustained through enlargement or failed attempts to go beyond the area of responsibility (Afghanistan, Libya, and partly Iraq), is getting loose again. European elites are faced with the need to rely on themselves, including in terms of security, a habit they have lost almost completely over the quarter of a century after the Cold War when life was quiet and comfortable. Defense spending was cut below the minimum. The European Union entered its deepest ever crisis.    

There emerged the possibility of changing the long-held geopolitical orientation. Some nine or ten years ago Europeans started to discuss, not quite publicly but earnestly, the prospect of creating common spaces with Russia and potentially with the enormous Chinese market. This alarmed elites which had become closely intertwined with the old Atlantic policy structure and did not want it to be reformatted. In order to avoid that, they needed a mobilizing element—an enemy. Bush’s “war on terror” in the 2000s, largely artificial at that time, could not play this role. With the beginning of a new decade, the West refocused on its habitual enemy, Russia, pushing European politics onto precarious path again. Despite Russia’s freer political system, capitalist economy and vastly smaller armed forces. The West was also incited by its own growing weakness, which was felt even bitterer against the sense of “final victory” it became convinced of by the end of the century. 

The strengthening of Russia, which until recently was considered defeated, became a painful reality symbolizing the rise of new forces generally referred to as “the non-West.” In fact, Moscow eagerly showed off its new possibilities.

As before, incentives for a new confrontation were coming from inside the West, which emerged in its present shape out of the Cold War and didn’t feel confident enough without it. More recently, search for a habitual enemy was instigated by the European Union crisis. It was believed that consolidation “against” would rejuvenate the troubled European project which partially was also a product of the Cold War. In fact, it was created to achieve two goals: to put an end to European wars, and to contain communism and the Soviet Union. Attempts are made to close ranks against its successor.  

The United States are trying hard to engage Europeans through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It is supported by zealous pro-Atlantic forces seeking to sneak under the U.S. wing as they did before. However, available information indicates that this project, which was carefully kept away from the public eye, is so disadvantageous for the Europeans that it has been quite difficult to push through so far.  

Another focal point is to recreate the old structure of security relations that would benefit (in different ways) traditional elites on both sides of the Atlantic. They did not want to build a common space from Vancouver to Vladivostok proposed by Russia as an alternative to the Old block system. Now they want to return to the old one, giving Russia, portrayed largely as an enemy, only an auxiliary role. The main reasons for that lie inside the West.  

Confrontation has been revived gradually. Russia has been increasingly criticized since the beginning of the current decade for lacking democracy and tolerance towards new European morals. Steps were taken, timidly at first, to renew military-political confrontation. Attempts were made to deploy antimissiles in Poland and the Czech Republic (meeting firm opposition in the latter). Russia strongly protested too, and the U.S. retreated for a while. All this was accompanied by a brainwashing campaign to convince the world that new NATO members from Eastern Europe were “vulnerable” even though they had been pulled into the alliance (and some of them were quite eager to get there) exactly in order to eliminate this “vulnerability.”

Classical pro-Atlantic figures in Europe (the same ones who later played a key role in inciting the crisis in Ukraine) insistently proposed talks on non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons. Russia has more such weapons to offset the West’s non-nuclear preponderance and prevent attempts to win the conventional arms race. Such talks would inevitably have militarized European politics, giving priority to “imbalances” and threats. These proposals were supported in Russia by some arms control experts who were yearning for some real work to do. However, Moscow sidestepped the trap and refused to begin the talks. 

By 2013, the anti-Russian campaign was in full swing. The West was again considering expanding its zone of influence through an association between Ukraine and the European Union. There were some indications that the West was also preparing a new round of NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine, which the United States had surreptitiously tried to push through as far back as 2008. The coup in Kiev provoked Moscow to counterstrike. Crimea and Donbass stopped the expansion of Western alliances that jeopardized Russia’s vital interests.    

Naturally, information war intensified. Europe, whose crumbling model rejected the direst use of force, was shocked by Russia’s actions. For some reason, Europeans did not want to think before about the consequences of their attempts to tear Ukraine away from Russia and put it under their control. Nor did they listen to the admonitions. Those who did wanted nothing but confrontation. Propaganda was backed with sanctions which were publicly said to be aimed at changing the ruling regime in Russia, by provoking “conspiracy of oligarchs” or popular discontent.

The propaganda campaign went into high gear to scare the world with Russian military threat mantras even though the Russian armed forces are much smaller than the Soviet ones and obviously are not intended for massive offensive operations, and NATO quantitatively exceeds Russia in all components of military power except nuclear capabilities. Russia’s actions in Ukraine were entirely defensive to prevent further expansion of the West which could have triggered a big war if allowed to continue. 

 Seemly hypocrisy was gone. The United States was openly discussing the need to repeat the experience of the 1980s when the European missile crisis, mythical “Star Wars” (Strategic Defense Initiative), the efforts to draw the Soviet Union into Afghanistan, and attempts to incite a crisis in Poland in hope to provoke the Kremlin to send its troops to that country, accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Instead of giving the stagnating economy the long-overdue revamp, Moscow threw itself eagerly into a new confrontation and arms race on the imposed terms.  

In their works, American strategists I have read and met over the past two years openly speak about repeating that scenario, with Afghanistan and Poland being replaced by Ukraine to which American foreign policy diehards were explicitly enticing Russia in hope to see its large-scale invasion. Moscow did not take the bait and its allies of Washington blocked the supply of lethal weapons to Kiev which was probably supposed to provoke an invasion.   

The propaganda war to demonize the enemy has gone beyond the pale and is probably even worse than the one in the 1950s. Russia sometimes responds in kind. I have already said elsewhere that if extraterrestrials heard this military and propagandistic cacophony, they would decide that Europe is preparing for war. I hope it is not. But increasingly frequent military exercises nearer and yet nearer Russian borders, the permanent deployment of weapons and rotational of troops, and information warfare create the impression of mounting military-political tensions and possibly even of a new crisis in the making to restore structured confrontation and draw rigid dividing lines across Europe east of its present border.    

Naturally, not all in the United States, let alone Europe, want this to happen or are prepared to admit such intentions, even to themselves. But such ideas do exit in the minds of many Atlantists in America, Great Britain and new NATO member states. It is quite possible that sober-minded and “soft” Obama (Jimmy Carter in the 1970s) will be replaced by a tougher and/or unpredictable leader (like Ronald Reagan and his administration during the first several years of his presidency). The ruling elite is likely to give the new administration the same mandate it gave Reagan: to restore the U.S.’s international positions shaken by a series of defeats; in other words, “make America great again” as one of the presidential candidates has vowed to do.  

The world has changed, of course. History cannot be repeated. Attempted revanche will most likely fail. And yet it would be unreasonable to ignore such a possibility, especially since the American ruling elite has not learned any lessons over the past several years and has instead become even more radical-minded, with realists gone, and neo-conservatives or liberal interventionists calling the shots. In fact, the previous revanche  attempt proved quite successful. 

A new round is already in progress as the USA intentionally exacerbates conflicts along the borders of China, proposes a new nuclear weapons modernization program nearly one trillion dollars’ worth (after all declared commitments to a nuclear-free world), and revives NATO’s traditional role as a factor of deterrence.  

One more episode from the past. When in the late 1970s and early 1980s our Western colleagues kept talking about the “Soviet military threat,” I looked at them with suspicion: Are they being silly or simply lying? The decaying Soviet Union obviously could not, and did not intend to, attack anyone. When I came to know  them better, I understood that they were mistaken after all. But when I hear about the “Russian military threat” again now, this certainly is not a mistake any more but a deliberate and blatant lie, apparently told in a bid to restore structured confrontation. I regret to say, but forward deployment of weapons and missile defense systems and the stationing of troops (rotational for the time being) in Europe is almost overtly provocative. 

It is said they are being deployed there in order to calm down Russia’s neighbors frightened by its possible (but hardly imaginable) aggression. In actual fact, in a real armed conflict such weapons would only make the host countries more vulnerable. I don’t think NATO strategists really think that Russia would wait for its territory to be invaded. These weapons and troops will make everyone nervous—Russia, against which they have been deployed, and their host countries, which turn themselves into priority targets either through folly, or out of desire to take revenge for Moscow’s previous victories, or by order (or no one simply asks them as in the case of Romania). Core NATO members will also become more worried when they understand that the new weapons and troops increase the risk of war in Europe.

The deployment of missile defense systems in Poland and Romania looks particularly odd. It is obviously prompted by the strong desire of a large segment of the American elite and society to have an illusion of strategic invulnerability, weaken the opponent along the way, and make their own defense industry happy. Initially, these plans were justified Byatt least theoretically plausible claims that Europeans needed to be protected from Iranian missiles. When Iran gave up its nuclear program, all decency was dropped. Now any reference to the Iranian threat looks brazenly false, unconvincing even for the West itself. And yet these arguments are replicated over and over again.      

Specialists say almost unanimously that if proper countermeasures are taken, missile defense systems cannot impair Russia’s strategic capabilities. But these systems and the inevitable countermeasures they provoke will increase military risks for the host countries, undermine strategic stability in Europe and the world, and provoke greater nervousness and mistrust.   

Experts and, most importantly, officials, who are responsible for the security of Russia, including its president, say that antimissiles in these systems can easily be replaced with long-range cruise missiles the deployment of which in Europe is banned by the INF Treaty. If this is true, the United States is taking a big surreptitious step towards breaching the treaty, while at the same time throwing similar accusations at Russia.

There are (or were) those in Russia who advocate secession from the treaty which is in fact quite inequitable. But Russia has never broken it. By placing  missile defense systems in Europe, the West is sort of inviting Russia to withdraw from the treaty and deploy missiles that can destroy these systems almost instantly. This would complete the picture with a new edition of the missile crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s and a new round of structured military-political confrontation in Europe.  

The watershed would run closer to our borders. But a new confrontation by definition is more dangerous than the previous one and would provoke a hair-trigger reaction or counter-reaction from both sides. The Americans apparently hope to sit it out over the ocean. Continental Europe, swayed by the avalanche of insolvable internal problems, does not seem to be giving it a serious thought, just as it did not think about the consequences of its expansion to Ukraine two and a half or three years ago. On top of it all, there are pro-conflict forces and interests in Europe (as noted above).

By essentially offering to resume military-political confrontation, Western partners want to make it more comfortable for themselves and tie Russia’s hands to prevent it from responding in a hard and risky way. This explains why the West constantly moots the possibility of resuming conventional weapons talks or confidence-building dialogue in its old format. I mentioned above the proposals to discuss nuclear weapons in Europe. I heard them many times while working in the OSCE Panel of Eminent Persons. Some of them resurfaced too.  

As a matter of fact, the results of Great Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union create an even greater uncertainty across the board and increase the likelihood of actions to distract attention from the EU crisis, increase the U.S. influence in Europe, and find a new excuse for consolidation.

What Is to Be Done?

First of all, one must understand that the scenario I have described is quite realistic or is already in progress. Old recipes are used again to provoke Russia into confrontation and arms race in Europe.  

Second, we must make it clear to our European partners and their societies that the current, and previous, policy of NATO and the forces rallying around it is aimed directly at renewing military confrontation in Europe, and if it is realized, it will increase the risk of conflict immensely. 

Third, there is no need to repeat the folly of the late Soviet and early Russian periods when we wanted to please the West and hoped for an equitable and stable security system in Europe. An analogue of that policy today would be an attempt to resume relations with NATO in the old format. Russia’s weakness and attempts at appeasement helped turn the alliance from a predominantly defensive bloc, as it was during the Cold War, into an offensive one and the main factor of military and political instability in Europe.

The aggressions against Yugoslavia and Libya, and the attack by the majority of U.S.- led NATO countries on Iraq created a new reality. It turned out that without strong deterrence from outside a defensive union of democratic states can easily degrade. Conclusions must be drawn. Russia should hardly try to legitimize the alliance through political dialogue with it in the Russia-NATO Council. But NATO is a reality, and therefore it would be prudent to continue discussion with it in order to avoid an escalation of incidents and accidental clashes. But this discussion must be conducted by the General Staff and NATO’s Military Committee, by military specialists. Simultaneously, a broader dialogue, bilateral and multilateral, among experts as well, is needed to discuss the future of European security and ways to prevent its destabilization and degradation.

Fourth, Russia should not respond to potential new missile and other challenges hastily or in kind. It should not secede from the INF Treaty, for this is exactly what some in the West expects it to do. In fact, Russia has already announced its countermeasures. It will deploy three divisions in the west of the country (Do we really need them there?) and plans to create non-nuclear high-accuracy missile systems (which are quite expensive and can only benefit a richer country). It may get drawn into an arms race. I personally think that an exercise of Russia’s strategic forces to dispel all doubts about what may happen in the event of a crisis with new missiles/interceptor missiles would be enough.

Fifth, there is the need for a broader security dialogue than the one within the old European framework. As long as we remain within it, and the West does not want to, give up the old system this framework reproduces confrontation. We probably should embark on a Eurasian cooperation, development and security dialogue, especially since the world has changed, including around Russia and Europe. The previous European-centric model looks almost like an anachronism, even for Europe which needs new cooperation horizons for development. China, Russia, and other Eastern and Central Eurasian countries can provide such opportunities. They will not challenge Europe’s Atlantic ties but will rather complement them. 

Sixth, new arms control talks are hardly necessary. With the West continuing to dominate the information space, such talks would only be used even more actively than before for inciting greater mistrust and militarizing mentality in Europe. But as I have already said, there is the need for military-to-military dialogue.  

Seventh, the remaining potential of the OSCE must be fully tapped, while its third basket, which was used mainly for sustaining and encouraging confrontation, should be gradually “forgotten.” The second—economic— basket is essentially dead. The Organization can be instrumental in settling crises similar to that in Ukraine and fostering joint responses to new security challenges like refugees, terrorism, migration, and cybercrimes. 

Eighth, and this is probably the main point, Russia should step up dialogue with the EU and its member countries to look for ways to restore and expand cultural, scientific and economic cooperation on a new realistic basis. The European Union is not a model any more, nor is it an adversary, but rather a good neighbor, a lucrative market and an equal partner with whom we share many interests and even basic values. Russia should probably think about a broader dialogue between the Eurasian Economic Union and the EU on the way to a comprehensive trade and economic partnership in Eurasia. The Russian president spoke about the need for such a partnership at the 20th St. Petersburg Economic Forum. 

Finally, and most importantly, we Russians have lots of complaints to make to the West, and many are itching to keep responding to the full extent possible and showing it where it gets off. Russia, which has always treasured its two core values — sovereignty and security — apparently has an internal need for an external enemy. This need will grow stronger unless the country starts long overdue reforms. 

But one must remember that in the long run no one will benefit from confrontation, even less so Russia, which is not as strong and rich as the West and even if it can hold out and continue to win tactical victories. It is vitally important to understand that if we allow Cold-War-era structured confrontation to resume, the planet will become a much more dangerous place than ever before. It is better to struggle for peace, provide security, including by preventing further expansion of Western alliances as we belatedly did in 2014, upset the plans of those who wish to renew the arms race and the systemic military-political confrontation, and regain leadership in the efforts to ensure the supremacy of international law and strategic stability.     

Brexit can create not only new threats but new opportunities as well. EU countries, including Great Britain, lost in their own crises, should be given a chance to resolve them through new détente. A common space for cooperation, joint development and security should no longer be considered within the old framework, which never fully materialized, but through a new and broader one stretching from Singapore and Shanghai to Lisbon or Dublin. 

// This article will be published in the next Russian issue of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, Vol. XIV, N4, July – August,  2016 and in the next English issue of the Russian in Global Affairs magazine Vol. XIV, N4, 2016