The INF Treaty and Russia's Challenge to U.S. Security

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Last Friday marked thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington DC on December 8, 1987. The Treaty represented a major breakthrough for arms control; for the first time the Superpowers agreed to completely remove an entire category of weapons from their respective nuclear arsenals. As it turned out, it also proved to be a diplomatic watershed, sending a strong signal of Soviet intentions for a fundamentally different relationship with the United States and its Western European allies, and initiating a number of political and diplomatic processes that would eventually lead to the end of the of Cold War and the ultimately to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For the first time, the INF Treaty banned an entire class of nuclear weapons. Any ground launched missile system--whether ballistic or cruise, armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads—capable of ranges between 500 and 5500 km was banned from development, production or deployment. This led to the scrapping of the American Pershing II ballistic missile and the U.S. Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) which had been deployed to address the perceived imbalance created by the large-scale introduction of the Soviet SS-20 IRBM system. Based on a simple formula of “Global Double Zero, almost 2700 hundred missiles were destroyed under the auspices of the INF Treaty, which also implemented a robust system to monitor compliance, including reciprocal on-site inspection. This fundamentally transformed the European security environment, and provided a foundation for the peaceful dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany, and an end to the division of the continent between East and West.

Today the INF Treaty is under stress. In 2014, the United States notified Russia of evidence of ongoing testing of programs that would be in clear violation of the Treaty. More recently, in March of 2017, the Defense Department confirmed that Russia had indeed violated the Treaty by deploying that system in question. Yet despite the alarmist tone of some critics, the U.S. detection of Russian violations actually reinforces the widely recognized value and importance of the INF Treaty and reflects its impact as an example of highly effective arms control. The United States possesses ample means to respond to the Russian transgressions, but pressing Moscow to return to compliance remains the most effective path forward.

Given Russia’s growing hostility in recent years, it is fair to question why the United States has taken such a low key response to Russia’s clear violation of the INF Treaty. Two factors can explain Washington’s relatively muted approach to addressing the situation. First, the structure of the Treaty provided the United States with ample time to detect the Russian violations well in advance of any potential “breakout” that Russia could exploit. Second, the problematic weapon, while troubling in terms of assessing Moscow’s larger intentions, only provides limited capabilities that don’t represent a significant shift in the military balance in Europe.

As mentioned, initial U.S. concerns about Russian testing of a cruise missile emerged three years ago. The United States confronted Moscow with evidence of the tests. Precisely, because of the clarity and simplicity of the INF Treaty, which prohibited the testing, development, production and deployment of land-based intermediate range nuclear forces, it was relatively easy for U.S. intelligence to detect the Russian transgression very early on in the process. Given existing national means of intelligence, U.S. policymakers could be fairly confident that Russia would not be able to rapidly develop and deploy large numbers of these prohibited weapons, and therefore there was no opportunity for Russia to exploit the situation and obtain any benefits from its illicit program. The Obama administration could be confident that there was time to take effective countermeasures, if necessary, to address a larger deployment, but this did not prove necessary.

The nature of the Russian program also should preclude overreaction on the U.S. side. While, the so-called SSC-8 does indeed represent a clear violation of the Treaty, the fact that it is a cruise missile, most likely based on the Russian Navy’s Kalibr cruise missile, should be taken into consideration. This is not an updated SS-20, and thus is not a reintroduction of highly capable intermediate range ballistic missiles into the European security environment, which would represent a major challenge to the United States and NATO and likely demand a prompt and robust response. A new intermediate-range ballistic missile, which could target any capital in Europe without any real warning time would indeed transform the current environment and potentially return Europe to the precarious situation it faced in the 1970s.

Russian defense experts have complained about the INF Treaty for some time. They argue that Russia is within range of several nuclear states with extensive intermediate range ballistic missile programs, and that the Treaty unfairly restrains Russia from addressing these threats. While IRBMs may be more useful to a large continental power like Russia, particularly given its large swaths sparsely populated territory bordering potential adversaries, this is a fairly weak excuse as deployed Russian ICBMs can target any of the potential threats. The more compelling (and likely) rationale for the limited deployment of a new cruise missile is to signal Russia’s basic dissatisfaction with the existing European security system, including the suspended Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty, and ongoing U.S. efforts to perfect European-based NATO ballistic missile defenses. For over a decade, Russian experts have consistently expressed concerns about the negative changes to its geopolitical position in the wake of NATO expansion. None of this is to overlook or excuse Russia’s willingness to use conventional military force and irregular “grey zone” operations against its neighbors, as evidenced in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively, but there is reason to believe that NATO expansion has heightened the perceived necessity of maintaining Russian influence in its “near abroad” and also has resonated with a large segment of the Russian people in domestic political terms.

Certainly, any future negotiations with Russia on arms control should be predicated on a return to compliance with the INF Treaty. The Treaty continues to serve U.S. and European security interests. While some experts view such a weapon as potentially useful for the United States, it seems clear that the maintenance of a stable European balance is worth maintaining and that the United States is more than capable of developing more operationally flexible and cost-effective alternatives than land-based intermediate-range cruise missiles to address emerging threats. Moreover, in the longer-run, a rejuvenated INF Treaty may serve as the basis for a multilateral international regime to limit or prohibit land-based IRBMs and GLCMs and thus serve to constrain the proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles and related technologies around the globe.

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