July 30, 2015 | Backgrounder on Arms Control and Nonproliferation
The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was one of the most significant arms-reduction accomplishments of the Cold War. The INF Treaty led to the elimination of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 300 miles to 3,400 miles, their launchers, and associated support structures and support equipment. In 2014, the U.S. State Department officially accused Russia of violating the treaty. The allegation sparked renewed interest in the utility of the agreement for the United States, and in the implications of Russia’s violations for U.S. allies in Europe. Russia’s aggressive and illegal behavior and the inability of the United States to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty indicate that the treaty has outlived its utility and is no longer in the U.S. interest.
The 1987 Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles—known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—was one of the most significant arms-reduction accomplishments of the Cold War era. The INF Treaty led to the elimination of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers (about 300 miles to 3,400 miles), their launchers, and associated support structures and support equipment. In July 2014, the U.S. State Department officially accused Russia of violating the treaty. The allegation sparked renewed interest in the utility of the agreement for the United States, and in the implications of Russia’s violations for U.S. allies in Europe. Russia’s aggressive and illegal behavior and the inability of the United States to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty indicate that the treaty has outlived its utility and is no longer in the U.S. interest.
The State Department’s 2014 Annual Compliance Report found that the Russian Federation “is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” The State Department affirmed the continuation of the Russian INF Treaty violations in its most recent report, published in May 2015. The State Department allegedly did not provide a more detailed explanation to its Russian counterpart about the violation in order to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods. Russian officials have used this lack of specificity to deny U.S. accusations on the grounds that they need more information before responding to U.S. allegations. They have also put forth their own accusations against the United States, accusing the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty by pursuing certain elements of the U.S. missile defense system. Russian accusations are baseless, as the INF Treaty contains an exemption for U.S. missile defense systems when those systems are used solely for missile defense purposes. At the time the INF Treaty was signed, both the Soviet Union and the United States recognized missile defense as an important part of dealing with proliferating ballistic missile threats. The rationale has not changed and actually became more compelling after the end of the Cold War, as ballistic missile technology became cheaper and more accessible. In contrast to Russia’s strong objections to the U.S. missile defense system today, when the U.S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the decision was “not a threat to the security of the Russian Federation.”
The Russian charge that U.S. armed drones constitute a violation of the INF Treaty is equally fallacious. Armed drones are not subject to the INF Treaty at all. Moreover, the first post–INF Treaty armed drone was Russian.
Russia’s most serious violation of the INF Treaty seems to be a ground-launched cruise missile test. Russia allegedly started conducting flight tests of a missile with a prohibited range as early as 2008. The missile most likely is the R-500, which the Russian press reported to have been tested at a range prohibited by the INF Treaty even in its first tests. U.S. officials have described the range of the prohibited cruise missile as “intermediate,” which means a range of over 3,000 km. Russian sources have put the range of the missile at between 2,000 km and 3,000 km. To violate the terms of the INF Treaty, a missile does not have to actually fly at a range prohibited by the treaty; it is enough for a missile to have the potential of flying at a range prohibited under the INF Treaty. The U.S. government took four years and numerous consultations with Russian officials to determine that Russia is, in fact, in violation of the INF Treaty. Even worse, despite these serious compliance concerns, the Administration kept the Senate blind about its concerns regarding Russia’s violations during the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) ratification debate. Due to its numerous flaws and disadvantages for the United States, New START had the lowest Senate approval of any arms control agreement since the end of the Cold War. New START would have faced an even more challenging ratification process had the Senators known about the extent of the Administration’s compliance concerns.
Mark Schneider, Russia expert at the National Institute of Public Policy, analyzes four additional issues involving Russian violation or circumvention of the INF Treaty. The first issue is the Iskander M ballistic missile system, currently deployed by Moscow, which reportedly has a range prohibited by the INF Treaty. The second is the new RS-26 Rubezh intercontinental-range ballistic missile, which the Russians have said was tested at a range of up to 2,000 km on three of its four successful tests. RS-26 is either a violation or a circumvention, as opposed to a violation, depending on one’s interpretation of the INF Treaty “type rule.” The issue is whether the missile that the Russians say was tested at a range of up to 5,600 km is the same “type” under the INF Treaty as the missile that was tested three times up to 2,000 km. An intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) could be given a prohibited intermediate range, for example, by making its payload heavier than it was during the initial intercontinental-range test (thus making the trajectory shorter). Russia could also fly an ICBM with two stages instead of three, thus achieving the prohibited range. In the past, Russia has converted some of its intermediate-range nuclear missiles to short-range missiles not prohibited by the INF Treaty by removing one of the stages. The RS-26 clearly does not have the range to function as a true ICBM.
Either way, the RS-26 ballistic missile is a material sign of Russia’s desire to obtain intermediate-range capabilities currently prohibited by the INF Treaty. In New START, the United States severely degraded the data exchange regime with respect to Russia’s offensive nuclear forces and agreed to not release information from data exchanges to the general public. This precluded a more informed judgment regarding Russia’s new long-range and potentially intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
The third issue refers to a dangerous precedent: a Soviet/Russian covert retention of the Skorost ballistic missile erroneously described as an intercontinental-range ballistic missile even though some Russian sources allege it was an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The United States did not push Russia on this issue. Lastly, while the INF Treaty contains an exception for ballistic-missile-defense interceptors, the exception is applicable only as long as interceptors are used solely for the missile defense purpose. Russia’s missile defense interceptors can likely be used as surface-to-air missiles.
Russian violations are neither new nor surprising given U.S. arms control experience with Moscow. Currently, Russia is in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, the Istanbul Commitments of 1999, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, an agreement to remove its military from Georgia and Moldova, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the INF Treaty. Russia is possibly in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as interpreted by the United States. Moscow has a history of arms control violations; it has in fact violated almost every single arms control agreement it has ever signed with the United States, including an apparent violation of the ABM Treaty in the 1980s. Given this history, the INF Treaty violations should come as a no surprise and certainly will not be the last violations to occur. In the past, Russian officials reportedly made comments about the INF Treaty being detrimental to the Russian interest.
The United States historically has not been very effective in bringing the Soviet Union and now Russia (as well as other arms control violators) into compliance with terms of international and bilateral agreements. For example, it took the U.S. five years to bring Russia back into compliance with the ABM Treaty, and the geopolitical situation had to change profoundly before that was possible. Such a change is unlikely today.
The perennial problem of what to do about arms control violations was raised by Fred Iklé, a prominent national security expert, over 50 years ago. Iklé emphasized that the United States must be in a position to respond politically, legally, and militarily. An integrated response requires an integrated coordination among different governmental stakeholders as well as international allies, yet the U.S. government tends to stovepipe and treats arms control separately from other national security issues. Some of this separation is justified since arms control requires a particular set of skills and is guided by its own language and requirements. However, in a networked global environment, the U.S. must rethink its approach to bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty (as well as other international treaties and agreements that Russia is currently violating). Additionally, after properly working and consulting with NATO allies, the United States should not hesitate to withdraw from the INF Treaty should other measures fail.
The INF Treaty was negotiated in concurrence with American deployments of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Pershing, to Europe in the 1980s. NATO was able to undertake these deployments despite massive Soviet propaganda. As an additional complicating factor, the United States refused to compromise with the Soviet Union on U.S. space activities, including research and development of space-based missile defense interceptors. Although the geopolitical situation was very different in the 1980s from what it is today, history does offer lessons on how to deal with Putin’s Russia. NATO today would be capable of sustaining U.S. nuclear and conventional capabilities designed to counter Russia’s aggression and threats, just as it was in the 1980s. After all, darker predictions about increasing the potential for conflict with the Soviet Union on the European territory did not come to pass, and the Soviet Union dissolved peacefully only a few years later. While one should treat the issue with caution, there is no certainty that the same dire predictions would come to pass today.
In order to increase the prospects of bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, the United States has a range of options. Most important, since Russian violations are occurring in a complex international context, Washington’s responses must entail more than unproductive meetings in cozy hotels in Geneva, and more than talking about Russian violations without doing anything about them. The President, the State Department, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff raised the INF violations with their Russian counterparts to no avail. The Administration did not properly communicate deadlines to Russia for coming back into compliance with the treaty, and has failed to hold Russia accountable. As a consequence, Russian violations have gone unreported and unpunished for years.
Benefits of INF Treaty Withdrawal for the United States. The INF Treaty played an important role in ending the Cold War because it demonstrated NATO’s will to stand up to Soviet propaganda. NATO’s perseverance indicated to the Soviets that they would not be able to break up NATO and individually peel off its members and turn them against the United States. Results of NATO’s principled stand were astonishing and unprecedented. The INF Treaty eliminated an entire class of ballistic missiles in two nations that had the largest quantities. The INF Treaty set a precedent for setting up an intrusive verification standard that later arms control agreements built upon or aspired to.
While agreement on the benefits of the INF Treaty for the United States is widespread, the discussion of limits and disadvantages of the treaty is almost non-existent. Considering Russia’s violations of the treaty, and its belligerent attitude toward U.S. and NATO allies, as well as other countries in Russia’s geographic vicinity, this is a discussion that should take place. The treaty has disadvantages, too. Arms control agreements limit a nation’s ability to think about and research and develop (when not prohibited by a treaty) the systems that these agreements regulate or ban. A pertinent example is the development of U.S. aircraft carriers between the two world wars. The United States was a party to the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty (later modified by the 1930 London Naval Treaty and the 1936 Second London Naval Treaty), which limited warship building and allowed the United States only a limited number of aircraft carriers. As a consequence, the United States voluntarily restricted its understanding of aircraft carrier operations and experienced a steep learning curve when World War II began. Not surprisingly, Japan and Italy were among the first nations to renounce these treaties. Certainly, when the INF Treaty was negotiated, the end of the Cold War was not envisioned nor was the post–Cold War proliferation of INF-range missiles.
Similarly, the INF Treaty has limited U.S. institutional knowledge of the role of ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the U.S. defense posture. The United States has given little or no thought to integrating intermediate-range systems into its force posture since the INF Treaty was signed—despite the aggressive rise of China and threats from rogue states. Washington has given little strategic thought to the benefits of intermediate-range ballistic missiles for Russia in the past two decades, or to how such missiles could be used to counter the Chinese challenge. Only after Russia violated the INF Treaty did the U.S. government scramble to develop response options to these violations, even then doing so only under an intense pressure from leadership in the House of Representatives—and, as of this writing, it has done nothing. The reason is quite understandable: The United States is a global power, and the government’s resources, both manpower and finances, are limited and more likely to be used in response to real-world events than hypotheticals. Indeed, the international security environment has not become any friendlier after the end of the Cold War, even though the Department of Defense’s capabilities (both nuclear and conventional) have been massively cut.
Moscow is approaching the issue differently: The Russian military and political establishment has been thinking about intermediate-range systems and their potential integration with the Kremlin’s forces for some time. The Russian leadership considers the intermediate-range systems useful enough to bear the risk and (so far minimal) cost of violating the INF Treaty. U.S. compliance with the INF Treaty while Russia blatantly violates it can give Russia a competitive advantage when it comes to integrating intermediate-range systems into its military and training its forces how to operate these systems.
Some argue that the United States should continue to preserve the INF Treaty even with Russia’s violations because it is not in the U.S. interest that Russia fully develop its intermediate-range nuclear forces options. However, evidence suggests that Russia might be doing what it wants regardless of the INF Treaty. The United States and its allies might be more inclined to disregard Russia’s intermediate-range threat due to the existing treaty, given resource constraints, until Russia’s intermediate-range nuclear advantage is too obvious. At that point, it could well be too late to develop options to counter it.
A withdrawal from the INF Treaty should not be undertaken haphazardly, nor would any government treat it as such. The United States would have to prepare grounds for the withdrawal first, explaining the nature of Russia’s actions with respect to violations of the INF Treaty and the international context in which these violations are occurring. Additionally, the United States must work with its NATO allies and deny Russia the benefits of exploiting the issue of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies. Just as the alliance held in the 1980s during the deployment of the Pershing II missiles in West Germany, and in 2002 when the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty, allies can and will follow U.S. leadership when broader European security is at stake.
Russia and China. Russia today has conventional superiority along the entire length of the NATO border. The U.S. Army shut down one hundred installations between 2003 and 2010. The Air Force has reduced aircraft and forces stationed in Europe by 75 percent since 1990. As much as Moscow likes to point to NATO as its main adversary, geopolitically, the Kremlin has a much more serious challenger to the east: China. Relations between Russia and China have been collaborative in the past few years, even though both countries continue to compete in the region. The partnership is buttressed by a shared aversion to the global role the United States has played since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, Russia’s structural problems (especially negative demographic trends) could present opportunities for an expanding Chinese population and a more assertive Chinese leadership. Hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants settle in Siberia each year, changing the ethnic makeup of the area. Asymmetry in economic might between the two countries is certain to complicate their relationship in the future.
China is not a party to the INF Treaty and is not a participant in arms control processes between the United States and Russia. On the contrary, Beijing is developing new intermediate-range systems. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center assessed that many of these systems “will be armed with nonconventional warheads.” Even though Russian generals or political leadership never speak about China as a potential adversary or a competitor, Russia’s desire to develop intermediate-range nuclear capabilities could be seen as a precautionary desire to match the Chinese strategic buildup. Such an approach could be considered sensible and realistic in the Russian worldview.
Implications for U.S. Allies. The INF Treaty issue is critical for European allies because of the context in which violations are occurring. Russia has been threatening NATO with nuclear attacks, thus severely undermining the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty regime, and has been intent on changing the post–Cold War security order in Europe by annexing Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Even before the U.S. government determined that the cruise missile test constituted a violation of the INF Treaty, Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that a “weapon capability that violates the I.N.F., that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with.” Allies were informed about Russia’s violations in January 2014.
In May 2015, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General, called Russia’s nuclear threats “unjustified, destabilizing and dangerous.” He deemed Russia’s nuclear rhetoric “deeply troubling” and noted NATO’s “concerns regarding its [Russia’s] compliance with the INF Treaty.”
The United States must include consideration of its allies in its decision about how to respond to Russia’s violations while strengthening deterrence vis-à-vis Russia and providing credible assurances to allies. Allies in Europe are most affected by changes in the status quo of the European security order. The Polish government stated that any undermining of the INF Treaty “would represent a serious challenge to Europe’s security” and condemned Russian violations.
Russia’s INF Treaty violations are yet another indicator that Russia intends to challenge the post–Cold War security order in Europe. Russian officials often threaten NATO with nuclear attacks and are intent on challenging the alliance’s resolve. So far, the Administration has failed to put forth any credible proposals on how to deal with Russian violations. Congress, the Administration, and NATO should take the following steps.
The Administration should:
U.S. leadership is absolutely critical for making sure that the alliance addresses Russia’s actions effectively and increases its potential to de-escalate conflict with Russia. The alliance can and must boost its political and military capability to deal with Russia’s threats, increase its credibility, and further assure its new members. Such an approach will tame Russia’s aggressiveness and prevent further escalation of conflict in the European theater.—Michaela Dodge is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and Strategic Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.
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 The United States explicitly reserved the right to redeploy these systems in a crisis under the Presidential Nuclear Initiative agreements.
[43 ] Article XV, clause 2, of the INF Treaty states: “2. Each Party shall, in exercising its national sovereignty, have the right to withdraw from this Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests. It shall give notice of its decision to withdraw to the other Party six months prior to withdrawal from this Treaty. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”
[44 ] The INF Treaty does not contain a provision for suspension of the operation of the treaty in whole or in part. However, the United States, which has signed but not ratified the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), considers many of the provisions of the VCLT as reflective of customary international law. See U.S. Department of State, “Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties,” at http://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/faqs/70139.htm (accessed July 24, 2015); see also Chubb & Son, Inc. v. Asiana Airlines, 214 F. 3d 301, 308 (2d Cir. 2000) (“The United States recognizes the Vienna Convention as a codification of customary international law. The United States Department of State considers the Vienna Convention ‘in dealing with day-to-day treaty problems’ and recognizes the Vienna Convention as in large part ‘the authoritative guide to current treaty law and practice.’”) (citations omitted). Russia is a party to the VCLT. See United Nations Treaty Database, at https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetailsIII.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXIII-1&chapter=23&Temp=mtdsg3&lang=en (accessed July 24, 2015). Article 60 of the VCLT provides that, in the case of a “material breach” of a bilateral treaty, which includes a “violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty,” the material breach “by one of the parties entitles the other to invoke the breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation in whole or in part.” VCLT, Article 60, paragraphs 1 and 3(b), at http://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/1_1_1969.pdf (accessed July 24, 2015). In light of Russia’s accession to the VCLT, and the U.S. recognition that the VCLT generally reflects customary international law, it is reasonable to conclude that both the U.S. and Russia would understand the principles articulated in Article 60 of the VCLT as the principles to apply with respect to suspension of operation in whole or in part of the INF Treaty.
[45 ] NATO, “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation,” May 27, 1997, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_25468.htm (accessed June 4, 2015).
 Defence24, “Polish F-16 Take Part in Steadfast Noon NATO Nuclear Exercise,” October 29, 2014, http://www.defence24.com/news_polish-f-16-take-part-in-steadfast-noon-nato-nuclear-exercise (accessed June 4, 2015).