Russia Breaching INF. Now What?
A version of this article appears in the August 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Last week, the Obama administration officially accused Russia of cheating on a landmark arms control pact, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
A Russian violation of a major arms control treaty is a serious matter that deserves a serious response. But let’s not overreact. A “tough” response, such as withdrawing from the treaty and building new weapons, would be premature and counterproductive. Russia’s actions pose more of a political challenge to the U.S. and its allies than a military threat.
The administration’s specific allegation is that Russia is violating its INF obligations “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.” This apparently means that Moscow is testing an intermediate-range cruise missile from an operational ground launcher, which is not allowed, as opposed to testing from a test launcher, which is allowed.
Russia denies the charge, which so far is not hard to do. According to The New York Times, U.S. officials do not believe Moscow has deployed the prohibited missile. Any evidence of deployment would make the Kremlin’s denial much less credible.
For now, the U.S.’s primary goal should be to bring Russia back into full compliance with the INF. Why? Because Russia apparently wants to build mid-range cruise missiles that are prohibited by the treaty. If deployed, these weapons could threaten U.S. allies (but not the U.S. directly). Make no mistake, this treaty is not some dusty artifact—it has served U.S. national security interests for over 25 years, and still does.
INF marked the first time the superpowers agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals and use extensive on-site inspections for verification. The treaty eliminated almost 2,700 missiles, most of them Russia’s.
U.S. policy should be to seek an immediate halt to all Russian activities that are inconsistent with the INF Treaty and eliminate prohibited missiles and launchers in a verifiable way. The U.S. should work with its allies to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear on Moscow to achieve these goals.
Unfortunately, this is not the only issue on Moscow’s naughty list, which also includes Crimea and eastern Ukraine andFlight 17. But the INF issue is too important to be lost in the shuffle.
It would be foolhardy for the U.S. to withdraw from the INF Treaty, as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others have suggested, for the simple reason that Washington has no military need to deploy intermediate-range ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles. If the U.S. fielded such weapons on its territory, it could threaten Canada and Mexico. Fielding these weapons in Europe would be a political non-starter and serve no useful strategic purpose; Washington has thousands of long-range nuclear weapons that can reach Russia on short notice.
Moreover, U.S. withdrawal would give Russia an excuse to do the same, allowing Moscow to openly deploy INF-banned cruise and ballistic missiles.
In July, Stephen Rademaker, a former Bush administration arms control official, told the House Armed Services Committee, “I do not believe the appropriate remedy in this case is for the United States to withdraw from the treaty. Rather, since Russia so clearly wants out, we should make sure that they alone pay the political and diplomatic price of terminating the treaty.”
The best outcome would be for the U.S. and Russia to engage in further discussions to promptly resolve Moscow’s violations. U.S. officials said President Barack Obama sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin seeking a “high-level dialogue” aimed at preserving the treaty.
This is the same approach Reagan used in 1983, when Russia was violating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Rather than withdraw, Reagan pressed Moscow to come back into compliance. Reagan’s approach worked, and led to additional agreements like INF and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), which significantly reduced the nuclear threat to the U.S.
Yes, arms control can be a messy process, but it gets results. Existing U.S.-Russian arms control agreements, such as INF and the 2010 New Start, still serve as anchors of stability and predictability—but Russia must comply with its commitments. The U.S. can help by building international pressure on Moscow to stay in the fold, and by resisting any temptation to withdraw from INF. U.S. withdrawal would be a gift to Moscow, not a punishment.
Collina is the research director at the Arms Control Association in Washington.