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Javier Solana on possible arms race in Europe: ‘I’m very worried’

What happens if US and Russia officially withdraw from a key nuclear treaty? Former NATO secretary-general discusses.

US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced their intention to withdraw from an arms treaty that banned the two countries from developing short- and medium-range missiles capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty was signed by the United States and the then-Soviet Union in 1987 and had helped ensure the end of the Cold War. It also helped address what was seen as a military imbalance between Europe and the Soviet Union, which had developed medium-range missiles that could reach Western European countries that did not have equivalent capabilities.

I don't think we should play with the last cards on nuclear matters. We have to discuss, debate, talk, until the very, very end.

by Javier Solana, former NATO secretary-general

The US was the first to announce its intent to withdraw early February this year. In an official statement, the US secretary of state said that Russia had developed a missile system that violated the treaty, and had failed to return to compliance. Russia announced its withdrawal the following day.

Many analysts and leaders are concerned about the consequences, including the potential for a new arms race.

Javier Solana, the former secretary-general of NATO, who also served as an EU foreign policy chief, presided over the first joint meeting between Russia and NATO in 1997, manifesting the end of the Cold War era.

While the US’s withdrawal came as part of ongoing discontent with Russia, Solana says was the move was concerning and should have only been used as a final measure.

“To react with, let me say, the heaviest reaction … is playing with the last cards. I don’t think we should play with the last cards on nuclear matters. We have to discuss, debate, talk, until the very, very end,” he says. “This tit-for-tat is for kids to play about other things but not for really important politicians playing about serious things … It’s very risky what they do.”

The INF dispute comes in the middle of political tension between President Trump and some European leaders. In November 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron – followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel – said it was time for Europe to create its own army, implying American military support could no longer be taken for granted.

While Solana does not think that the EU will collectively go to war, he agrees that the EU needs military capabilities to be able to defend itself.

“I see very clearly that we have to be much more interoperable and much more integrated [in] our capabilities. And we have the possibility of acting in a strategic manner alone.”

Solana worries that the demise of the INF treaty will worsen global security as nuclear issues resurface and agreements reopen – a trend that will bring politics into unchartered territory.

“I’m worried, to tell you the truth, very worried … We have big public goods that have to be respected and provided,” he says. “But … nuclear weapons, climate change, poverty, other issues … we cannot make a mistake in the way we approach them.”

“There are things that we should not touch.”