For a technical document, it was groundbreaking. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty ended a protracted crisis in arms control. It also launched a series of painstaking negotiations on how to continue reducing the military threat during the Cold War’s waning days.

INF was the first successful agreement to eliminate an entire class of state-of-the-art weapons—intermediate-range (1,000–5,500 km) and shorter-range (500–1,000 km) ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems. It also restricted the production, testing, and deployment of such systems in the future.

The agreement was a victory for both sides: NATO no longer needed to fear SS-20 (RSD-10 Pioneer) missiles, which targeted Western Europe, as well as the obsolete R-12 (SS-4) and R-14 (SS-5 Skean) missiles. Meanwhile, the USSR neutralized the threat of precision-guided Pershing II and ground-launched BGM-109G Gryphon missiles.

Today, however, the arms control deal is in trouble. Washington has accused Moscow of violating the INF Treaty, and the Kremlin has threatened to exit the agreement. Without new agreements and measures to ensure compliance with INF, the prospects of arms control are bleak and the gains from the treaty could easily be lost.

Russia began having serious misgivings about the INF Treaty at the turn of the century, when its relations with the United States soured. In 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin and several top military officials warned that Russia might leave the INF Treaty in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. They characterized the INF Treaty as a “relic of the Cold War” that deprived Moscow of the opportunity to develop systems that many other countries had in their arsenals.

In June 2013, Putin told representatives of the Russian military-industrial complex that the USSR’s decision to give up intermediate-range missiles was “questionable at best.” He again suggested that Russia may withdraw from the agreement, this time in response to the deployment of U.S. missile defense elements in Europe.

But Russia later confirmed that it would continue to abide by the treaty and would not resume production of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles—even though it believed that a number of the treaty’s clauses needed technical clarifications due to the emergence of new types of weapons since 1987. At the same time, Moscow asserted that the U.S. deployment of a global missile defense system was in direct violation of the treaty.

In the ensuing years, Russia’s position remained conflicted. In 2017, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stressed that Moscow remained committed to INF. However, he also said Russia was “very concerned about attempts by the U.S. side to use contrived excuses to question the practicability of keeping the treaty.”

Still, Moscow is not rejecting the joint Russian-American proposal to strengthen the INF Treaty and extend the prohibition on ground-launched intermediate- and shorter-range missiles to all nuclear states. Both sides have repeatedly affirmed this idea, even though such an expansion would virtually eliminate the missile stockpiles of China and many other Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

But the issue grew distinctly more urgent in July 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama sent Putin a letter accusing Moscow of violating the INF Treaty. The U.S. State Department had determined that Russia was developing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

However, the United States did not have its story straight. First, Washington proposed it was an R-500 cruise missile for the Iskander-M; next, it suggested a Kalibr cruise missile with a flight range of up to 2,600 km; then, it referred to the new 9M729 missile (NATO designation SSC-8) from the Novator design bureau, a part of the Almaz-Antey concern. The 9M729 is believed to be a deep upgrade of the R-500 (RM728) Iskander-M missile with new launchers and transport-loading vehicles.

The U.S. Congress already has a powerful lobby supporting the deployment of new U.S. systems in response to the alleged Russian violation. The most radical proposals recommend beginning work on a new Pershing III mobile missile and new ground-based cruise missiles to fortify the air forces in the European theater.

Russia, however, rejects assertions that it has illegally deployed the alleged missile. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the 9M729 ground-based cruise missile meets all requirements of the treaty, that it has not been designed or tested for flight ranges prohibited by INF. Moscow maintains that it is being deployed in strict compliance with Russia’s international obligations.

In truth, it is unlikely that Moscow deliberately violated the agreement. Instead, this was probably a case of brinkmanship, perhaps intended to make the U.S. stance on missile defense more flexible.

But in response to Washington’s claims, Russia alleged that the United States was using intermediate-range ballistic missiles as targets (according to the INF Treaty, it is a violation to even produce missiles with these technical characteristics for any purpose—even for use as targets) and developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—such as the Reaper MQ-9 and the Avenger—with characteristics matching those of intermediate-range cruise missiles.

Russia is most concerned about the land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems that the United States recently deployed in Romania and intends to install in Poland. These missiles use the same kind of vertical launch systems as the shipborne Mk-41, which can launch the prohibited Tomahawk cruise missile.

Washington argues that the Aegis Ashore systems have observable, functionally related differences which show that they cannot launch cruise missiles. But the Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly stated that it views these as offensive ground-based intermediate-range systems. So far, consultations between the sides have been fruitless. The latest session of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission, held in Geneva on December 12–14, 2017, likewise did not result in any breakthroughs—even though the parties reaffirmed the treaty’s importance while marking its 30th anniversary.

According to available information, at the session the United States revealed the serial number of the disputed Russian missile, along with the date and place of its launch. Russia said that these tests were in line with the treaty, citing Article VII, Paragraph 11. It states: “A cruise missile which is not a missile to be used in a ground-based mode shall not be considered to be a GLCM [ground-launched cruise missile] if it is test-launched at a test site from a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launchers.”

To further complicate matters, if the new missile had been tested from an Iskander-M launcher, according to the treaty this should mean that all such launchers must be destroyed.

However, with sufficient political will and an understanding of the situation’s complexity, a rational compromise should be possible. Russia and the United States could make the political commitment to resolve mutual grievances regarding INF Treaty compliance. Then, they could supplement diplomatic talks with technical studies or set up a special bilateral group of duly authorized technical experts to review all substantive claims. Such a working group would allow Russia and the United States to explore the possibility of supplementing the agreement with provisions that would take into account the technical progress and political changes that have occurred since the treaty was signed.

The two parties could feasibly coordinate new memoranda of understanding or agreed definitions (as was done with the 1972 ABM Treaty) that would describe the characteristics of new weapons technologies and make it possible to distinguish them from intermediate- and shorter-range ground-based systems.

In particular, the sides could coordinate parameters for testing target missiles; develop new definitions for attack UAVs as a new, third category of weapons subject to the INF Treaty; and approve new oversight and verification measures for distinguishing them from prohibited GLCMs.

Furthermore, Russia and the United States could reach agreements on transparency measures regarding SM-3 IB/IIA vertical launch systems deployed at U.S. missile defense sites in Romania and later in Poland, and agreements on their observable and functionally related differences.

Theoretically, it would also be possible to reach a consensus on inspecting these systems, despite the Pentagon’s expected objections. In turn, Moscow could shed some light on its tests of the troubling new cruise missile by providing exhaustive and persuasive information or even organizing a visit for U.S. inspectors to the Kapustin Yar test range.

A U.S.-Russian group of technical experts could analyze the problems in detail and formulate specific recommendations with parameters and technical characteristics for resolving the disputes. This could prove a useful venue for exploring the issue in depth and patching up existing gaps in the INF Treaty. And Europe would undoubtedly welcome such measures for strengthening regional security.

The aforementioned steps are long overdue. U.S.-Russian relations continue to crumble. If nothing is done, they could take arms control with them.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Victor Mizin