The Russian government’s violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has recently risen in prominence in Washington and elsewhere. What was originally foremost an arms control issue for the United States has escalated into a major defence problem for all of NATO. Moscow’s departure from long-standing laws, borders, and agreements demand a major re-evaluation of Russia’s strategy and how NATO can best respond. Until the issue is resolved, the US Congress is unlikely to ratify another major bilateral arms control treaty with Russia and NATO’s willingness to cooperate with Moscow will be appropriately constrained. The reason why Russia is cheating on some security treaties is to remove impediments to Moscow’s military revival. Russia’s approach aims to induce the United States and NATO into assuming the onus of formally withdrawing from these accords—a trap best avoided through countering measures that deny Moscow any net benefits from its actions yet still maintain the solidarity of the alliance that is essential for NATO’s strength at a time of Russian resurgence.
The Current Crisis
There have been media reports about alleged Russian violations of the INF treaty for years, with much speculation focused on a possible new Russian ballistic missile that overlaps that range, but in a July 2014 report, the US State Department made clear that its allegations concern alleged Russian testing of a new ground-launched cruise missile. On September 5, 2014, the NATO heads-of-state summit in Wales indirectly confirmed this interpretation by stating that “it is of paramount importance that disarmament and non-proliferation commitments under existing treaties are honoured, including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which is a crucial element of Euro-Atlantic security. In that regard, the Allies call on Russia to preserve the viability of the INF Treaty by ensuring full and verifiable compliance.”
According to the recent media accounts, the US government now believes that Russia first began testing a ground-launched cruise missile within the INF-prohibited range back in 2008, but it took US analysts several years to discover and confirm the test and then to conduct an interagency compliance review of the data regarding the issue, which found Moscow legally in violation of the treaty. Russia reportedly has the capacity to deploy this system but has not yet done so. At first, US diplomats sought to resolve Russia’s INF violations privately through low-level consultations, then the State Department formally raised the issue with Russia in May 2013. In July 2014, a week after the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee formally held a hearing devoted to attacking the administration for not challenging Russian arms control violations more aggressively, President Barack Obama wrote an official letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin stressing his concerns and calling for high-level talks to return Russia to compliance. The US Secretaries of State and Defense have also raised the subject with the Russian government.
The Russian response, in public and apparently in private, has always been to deny that they have tested any missile that violates the INF treaty and to demand that the United States provide concrete evidence of the reasons for its accusation. The Russian government has not even taken the easy excuses of simply saying a military unit made a mistake in how it conducted a missile test or by claiming the disputed system is really a permitted sea-launched cruise missile that is legally being tested on land before it is tested on a more vulnerable submarine. According to one participant in the Russian-US exchanges on the issue, “so far, our discussion has been roughly like this. Hi, we have a concern, you violated the treaty. They say, no, we haven’t. But no, you really have, and let us share some information with you about… no, you have to give us more information. We don’t know anything about it.” Russian officials and media have been describing the US INF allegations as, in the words of Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov on the state-owned RT television channel, “part of the anti-Russian campaign unleashed by Washington in connection with the Ukraine crisis. And the US is ready to exploit any means to discredit Russia.” The US government has released only limited public information about the Russian INF violations, presumably in order to protect US intelligence sources and methods. If the Russians knew how we detected their violations, they would presumably close that vulnerability.
After the US accusations became public, Russian officials have recently been counter-charging that it is actually the United States that is violating the treaty, in three ways, by using intermediate-range booster rockets to launch targets for US ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems, deploying long-range strike UAVs, and stationing Aegis Ashore BMD systems in Poland and Romania with MK-41 Vertical Launching Systems that could be modified to launch armed missiles instead of unarmed interceptor missiles. US officials have explained why these objections are frivolous.
Originally most NATO governments seemed to treat the issue as one that the United States and Russia needed to resolve directly. Now the violation has become linked with renewed NATO concern about how the Russian government has been directing nuclear threats and deployments against the alliance. During his visit to the United States in late May, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russia’s nuclear build-up and other military activities could "fundamentally change the balance of security in Europe.” He attacked “Russia's nuclear sabre-rattling [as] unjustified, destabilising and dangerous.” Stoltenberg chastised Moscow for forgetting the lesson of the Cold War that, "when it comes to nuclear weapons, caution, predictability and transparency are vital.” He further complained about Russian non-compliance with nuclear arms control agreements and about how “Russia has … significantly increased the scale, number and range of pro-active flights by nuclear capable bombers across much of the globe.” Russia’s heightened military activity and nuclear treats have expanded foreign concern about its INF Treaty violations beyond the scope of its original US-Russia concern.
Why Is Russia Cheating?
Russian officials may no longer see net benefits in being bound by INF Treaty restrictions. Prominent Russian national security officials, including President Putin, view the Treaty as one of those unequal agreements and situations—alongside the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the lack of controls on the British and French intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles, and the expansion of NATO’s membership—that the collapsing Soviet Union and then prostrate Russian Federation was compelled to accept. Russian analysts have complained for years that, whereas the United States is surrounded by friendly countries, Russia is encircled by states that are acquiring large numbers of short to intermediate-range missiles and have, or could soon have, nuclear weapons. These include countries such as India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and especially, if sotto voce, China (which originally developed intermediate-missiles to hit Soviet targets and presumably aims some of these missiles at Russian targets). They also note that Russia is vulnerable to long-range air strikes launched from these nearby states.
The United States and Russia made a limited effort to induce other countries to adhere to the INF Treaty, but this campaign has so far involved little more than issuing a joint appeal at the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly in 2007. No other country has joined the Treaty beyond the United States and the Russian Federation (though some provisions apply to the other former Soviet republics) and it is not evident that Russian or US diplomats are pressing other states to join.
While maintaining its innocence in the face of US allegations of treaty violations, the Russian Foreign Ministry has implied that any Russian action would be a justifiable response to previous US government actions, which Moscow sees as having begun the process of killing international arms control. For example, the Ministry charged in 2014 that “Washington is systematically carrying out a plan to dismantle the global strategic stability system…The Americans started this process in 2001, by unilaterally withdrawing from the ABM treaty. Now it is aggravated by a rapid and unlimited build-up of the US global missile defence system, an unwillingness to clean up the territory of other states from the US tactical nuclear arsenal deployed there, elaboration of a provocative strategy of Prompt Global Strike, and an excessive build-up of conventional weapons, including their offensive components.”
In addition to the indirect benefits of weakening NATO security solidarity, Russia’s acquisition of banned intermediate-range missiles could help Moscow overcome several critical NATO military advantages. In particular, Russian INF-range systems could attack the ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems and other forces that NATO is deploying around Russia’s periphery, providing Moscow with a counterbalance to Western superiority in conventional forces and missile defences. Moreover, INF-range systems would help Russia counter other potential military threats to Russia’s south and east. Although an actual conflict between Russia and these countries is implausible, having INF-range missiles would allow Russia to deter attacks from these states, preemptively destroy their intermediate-range missiles and other high value targets, and more easily overcome their missile and air defences.
Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is part of a larger pattern. Various US experts believe that the Russian government may be violating other arms control agreements, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, the Vienna Document, and the Open Skies Agreement. Russian officials may have believed that keeping the INF violation discreet and maintaining deniability would successfully limit the risks of their violating the INF Treaty as well.
Initially Russian leaders might have hoped that the United States would not discover the violation, especially if the plan was to develop the new missile but wait until an opportune or necessary time to deploy it. The U.S. officials who have engaged in talks with Russian officials and experts on the issue believe that only a small number of Russians originally knew about the programme. If Russia had successfully concealed the violation, that would have prevented a NATO response. Even though it has now been revealed, Russia officials may calculate that they would suffer no major negative consequences since they have violated or circumvented other treaties without major losses—and Russia has already been heavily sanctioned by NATO because of the war in Ukraine.
At present, Russian officials are manoeuvring to induce the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which they have long disliked. From Moscow’s perspective, it would be clearly better for Washington rather than Russia to bear the onus of formal withdrawal from the treaty so that other countries in general, and NATO allies in particular, would be less likely to adopt strong measures against Russia in response. Violating and suspending treaties rather than formally leaving them allows Moscow to make a “soft exit” from arms control constraints while placing on others the burden of either withdrawing from a treaty, responding with counter measures, or remaining compliant and constrained by an accord that Moscow is violating.
To further lessen the likelihood of reprisal, Russia tries to intimidate countries and undermine the cohesion of its adversaries. In these cases, Russian leaders threaten to attack countries that take actions Russia deems hostile as well as using more positive inducements such as sweetheart energy deals. Whatever the original reason for their INF violation, Russian officials may hope that NATO governments will divide over how to respond to a new missile that only threatens the alliance’s eastern members. While Poland and the Baltic states are likely to favour a vigorous response, NATO members beyond the range of the new weapon have less reason to favour a strong reaction.
In any case, Russian actions regarding INF and other nuclear issues suggest that Moscow is pursuing a nuclear doctrine and strategic modernisation plan that differs from its published military doctrine, which describes nuclear armaments as a weapon of last resort. The Russian Federation is in the midst of a sustained nuclear arms build-up and regularly conducts large-scale exercises that simulate the use of nuclear weapons. Russian officials have returned to making unveiled nuclear threats against countries that might challenge their control of the Crimea or join the US-led missile defence architecture. In practice, military doctrine typically follows rather than drives actual modernisation and deployment policies.
Towards an Effective Response
Russia wants to remove hindrances to its geopolitical revival, including international treaties that are now seen as objectionable, in a manner calculated to manoeuvre other parties into appearing responsible for their collapse. NATO’s response should aim to deny Moscow these benefits while sustaining the alliance solidarity that provides the foundation for NATO’s strength at a time of Russian resurgence.
The Obama administration still hopes that threats of concrete retaliatory measures, along with continued diplomatic efforts and public shaming of Moscow, will induce Russia to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty. The US military has no requirement to deploy ground-launched missiles in Europe and NATO governments do not want the United States to withdraw from the treaty, which would play into Moscow’s hands by placing the onus for withdrawal on Washington, and could lead Moscow to move from development to deployment of the contested missile.
The alliance needs to think clearly how Moscow can return to compliance with the Treaty in a way that minimises that damage to European security. Russia would presumably have to destroy any prohibited missiles in a way that allowed the United States to verify their disposal. This is likely to require some kind of on-site inspections given the small size of the equipment and Russian government secrecy. Although it would prove impossible to eliminate any knowledge Russia gained from designing and testing the missile, the treaty’s focus is on prohibiting actual deployments.
These issues might best be addressed in the Special Verification Commission (SVC) created by the treaty. Neither side has used the SVC for years. The Obama administration argues that the Russian government is more likely to respond to messages delivered by senior US officials than through routine communications through a consultative bi-national commission that lacks enforcement powers. But the Russians have dismissed even these high-level messages for years; even in response to communications from President Obama and US cabinet secretaries the Russian government has denied the existence of the alleged missile. There is no obvious harm in trying to work within the SVC format as well, which could find a depoliticised technical solution when conditions are riper.
Unfortunately, Moscow’s violations may take years to address and correct. Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush needed seven years to convince the Soviet Union to destroy a radar system that violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was later abandoned. It might take even longer to convince Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty due to the complexity of the issue and Moscow’s reasons for violating the treaty.
If Russia does not return to compliance, or at least move quickly and broadly in that direction, the United States has several options. The United States could deploy its own ground-based cruise or ballistic missiles in Europe to threaten Russian military forces, either any INF-banned missiles Moscow deploys or even other Russian military assets, with an equivalent US system. The move to generate new “counterforce” capabilities would aim either to induce Moscow to negotiate a compromise or to deny—by being able to destroy the Russian missiles before they could be launched—Moscow any military advantages from violating the treaty. NATO pursued such a successful “dual-track” policy in the 1980s when the alliance deployed US intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles in several West European countries to induce Moscow to accept a “zero-option” INF Treaty for both US and Russian nuclear systems in Europe.
However, it is unclear which countries would host such weapons. Those NATO members most inclined to welcome them would be those located closest to Russia, but deploying these land-based missiles in proximity to Russian territory would also make them more vulnerable to Russian preemption. In addition, the Obama administration would prefer to avoid having the United States violating the INF Treaty, which bans such ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.
A sensible approach may be to publicise US preparations to proceed with such a response but to keep it at the level of contingency planning rather than actual development let alone deployment unless Russia actually begins to deploy its newly developed INF-banned missile. Rather than returning US ground-launched nuclear missiles to the European continent, NATO could support US deployment of sea and air-launched intermediate-range systems, which are permitted by the treaty. Putting any newly deployed US non-strategic missiles aimed at Russia on highly mobile warplanes and warships would make them less vulnerable and would be seen as less provocative than stationing ground-launched missiles near Russia, where both sides would have incentives to use these missiles first against the other’s strike forces.
As an alternative to such a “counterforce” response, NATO could pursue less confrontational options more likely to win alliance-wide backing and thereby thwart any Russian effort to use the issue to tighten transatlantic tensions. One possibility would be to enhance NATO defences against Russian cruise missiles. This move, though costly and technically challenging, would be treaty compliant and also help NATO better defend against threats from other sources, such as North Africa and the Middle East.
Furthermore, the alliance could increase the credibility of its nuclear deterrence if European governments would make a firmer commitment to developing next-generation dual-capable aircraft with the ability to deliver US nuclear bombs based in Europe. The United States could reaffirm that some US submarine-launched ballistic missiles, whether in the existing Trident fleet or in the next-generation strategic submarines, will always be available for use for NATO contingencies.
Sustaining strong NATO support for any US countermove will be critical. The Kremlin can easily ignore US complaints as yet one more source of Russian-American differences, but would worry more about alienating some European countries, such as Turkey and France, which remain targets of influence for Kremlin lobbyists. Deployment of new US military forces in the NATO area of operations also needs to enjoy support from the alliance to have a meaningful impact.