As if the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis did not provide the requisite excitement, the tensions between Russia and the West were also heightened at the end of July over the issues of compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1987 and subsequently inherited by Russia. The subject first gained top-level recognition through Barack Obama’s official statement addressed to Vladimir Putin. The unprecedented escalation of tensions between Russia and the West over the situation in Ukraine has clearly contributed to this development.

Nevertheless, the strategic component of the problem is important too. Specifically, Washington is accusing Moscow of testing ground-launched R-500 Iskander cruise missiles with a range of over 500 km, which is prohibited by the INF. If Russia would like to preserve the treaty, it is expected to present explanations that would refute the American accusations. But many Russian analysts subscribe to quite a different view. Moreover, the highest-ranking Russian officials have expressed their reservations as to the benefits of the treaty. How justified are Moscow’s reservations, and what constitutes “the extraordinary events the notifying Party regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests” (as stated in article XV on withdrawal provisions).

Alexey Arbatov
Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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There are essentially two such circumstances existing, as have been presented by opponents of the treaty. First, a number of third countries have been developing their intermediate-range missiles, and only Russia and the United States are prohibited from doing so by the INF. Second, this must be Russia’s answer to the NATO European missile defense program (Iskander is sometimes called “missile defense killer” for its capability of hitting anti-missile defense launchers and radars). Let us approach these arguments rationally rather than emotionally.

At the present time, seven states possess ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with ranges prohibited by the treaty. These are China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—missiles from all of these countries are capable of reaching Russian territory. However, not all of these countries assign their weapons against Russia. China is Russia’s strategic partner and is never officially mentioned as a potential threat to Russia and the object of its deterrence strategy. This is even more true in the case of India, whose missiles are intended to deter China and Pakistan, but not Russia. Pakistan’s IRBMs are directed exclusively against India, while Israel aims them at Iran and its adversaries in the Arab world. North Korean missiles are designed to threaten the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies. Saudi Arabia and Iran aim their missiles at each other and Israel.

It is often said about China, and sometimes about Iran and Pakistan, that political intentions may change while the missiles are here to stay. But even in this case, Russia’s capability to deter the United States is more than sufficient for deterring all of the above third countries, either individually or collectively. Russia possesses strategic missiles that are capable of striking intermediate-range targets at shortened trajectories, as well as medium and heavy bombers and shorter-range weapons. On the whole, with the exception of the United States, Russia’s nuclear forces are four to five times larger than the forces of all other nuclear-weapon states combined in terms of number of weapons (let alone their quality). If this enormous potential does not deter these states from a nuclear attack, Russia’s exit from the INF and subsequent deployment of a certain number of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles will hardly remedy the situation.

As for the NATO missile defense program in Europe, it will have very little impact on the Russian nuclear deterrence potential—both in terms of the planned number of missile interceptors and their technical characteristics. This is especially true in light of the cancellation of the fourth phase of the plan, which would involve the deployment of the SM-3 Block IIB interceptors in Poland and on ships in the northern seas. To say nothing of Russia’s broad strategic nuclear forces modernization program which is deploying and developing five new types of land and sea-based missiles with sophisticated penetration aids and leaves no chance for NATO missile defenses.

The arguments in favor of explicit INF denunciation or tacit non-compliance are mostly inspired by the perceived threat coming from the United States and NATO. However, the same strategic logic should anticipate reciprocal steps on their part. True, President Obama stated that the United States is not planning to take steps of the same kind, but he is leaving the White House in two and a half years, and in the midst of an anti-Russian campaign his successor might favor a different approach.

In the early 1980’s, the possibility of U.S. Pershing II missiles reaching the Moscow region with a short flight time was seen as a serious threat. In the future, similar systems deployed in the territory of new NATO members (Poland, the Baltic countries, Romania, and Bulgaria) can reach the entire Russian territory up to the Urals and far beyond it. Unlike the European missile defense, this could be a real threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrence potential. It would force Russia to completely overhaul its nuclear forces, warning and command-control systems, and air-space defense at a tremendous additional cost. In addition, Russia’s exit from the INF treaty would consolidate NATO once again on such issues as increasing military spending and coordinating the development of offensive and defensive weapons, including the significant expansion of missile defense in Europe. Thereby countering imagined threats Moscow may generate real dangers to its deterrence potential and strategic stability.

It would not be prudent for Russia to seriously compromise its long-term security yet again while pursuing tactical goals or relying on superficial arguments.

  • Alexey Arbatov