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The ongoing crisis concerning the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has become a clear sign of the dire state of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture. For several years now, Moscow and Washington have traded accusations of non-compliance with the treaty, though their attitudes toward it differ considerably.
The U.S. does not question the treaty’s value (with the exception of some officials and politicians ideologically opposed to any nuclear arms control), but neither does it consider the treaty a priority, viewing it as more important for the security of its European and Asian allies than for its own. By contrast, Russia’s leadership, along with most of the country’s political elites and strategic studies experts, during the last decade have regularly expressed skepticism about the INF Treaty’s value. Russia’s most recent Foreign Policy Concept published in 2016 did not even mention the INF Treaty on its list of arms control agreements to which Russia is pledging its allegiance.
Probably defying Moscow's expectations, the Trump administration not only sided with Congress, which accuses Russia of violating the INF Treaty, but also incorporated funding for research into the development of intermediate-range nuclear forces into its first defense budget and simultaneously declared its intention to withdraw from the treaty and impose new economic sanctions on Russia, a turn of events that is unprecedented in disarmament history.
Aside from the direct damage that it will do to Russia’s security, the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty risks triggering a chain reaction that would result in the collapse of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture. Should the treaty meet its demise, the New START Treaty may join it in the dustbin of history, as may the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or CTBT.
The world faces a new offensive nuclear arms race, complemented by a contest over offensive and defensive long-range precision-guided non-nuclear strategic systems and the development of space and cyber weapons. This multidimensional arms race would most likely become multilateral, drawing in China, NATO member-states, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Plus, the consequent and inevitable proliferation of nuclear weapons will be concentrated along Russia’s borders, leaving Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Japan forced to ensure their own security.
Because the U.S. and Russia have in recent years halted cooperation on keeping nuclear materials and technologies safe and secure, a nuclear weapon will sooner or later end up in the hands of terrorists. Russia will likely become one of prime terrorist targets with its new leading role in the struggle against international terrorism in Syria, the vulnerability of its geopolitical position, and the porousness of its southern borders.
Although it is frequently criticized in Russia, the INF Treaty is more important for the country’s security today than it was thirty years ago. In response to Russia’s deployment of weapons systems prohibited under the INF Treaty, the U.S. will resume its deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces—not in Western Europe, as in the past, but in Poland, the Baltic States, and Romania, from which they will be able to strike beyond the Urals. The U.S. may also renew its Pershing II and land-based cruise missile programs with improved intermediate-range systems and deploy them in Europe. This will force Moscow to commit significant resources to increasing the survivability of its nuclear forces and their command-control and information systems, at a time when Russia’s economic situation is necessitating defense cuts.
The U.S. will do everything possible to blame Russia for the demise of the INF Treaty, having spent several years laying the groundwork for it. It will be scapegoated at every forum, from the UN General Assembly to G7 and G20 summits to NATO-Russia and EU-Russia meetings. This course of events will make NATO increase defense spending and closer coordinate the development of offensive and defensive armaments, including missile defense systems.
The international community remembers and continues to view the INF Treaty as a symbol of the final stage of the Cold War and the transition to real nuclear disarmament, meaning that the treaty’s demise will be widely understood as a return to confrontation and the Cold War arms race. It is not difficult to imagine the reactions of those countries participating in the 2020 NPT Review Conference, especially after the passage of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty in the UN General Assembly in July 2017.
Instead of trading accusations, the U.S. and Russia should jointly develop additional verification measures that will allay mutual suspicions. Moscow accuses Washington of using “Hera,” a ballistic missile that Russia says qualifies as an intermediate-range ballistic missile and thus violates the INF Treaty, to test its missile defense systems. Russia also argues that U.S. armed drones with a range of more than 500 kilometers violate the INF Treaty.
Russia’s main grievance concerns U.S. missile defense bases, which were placed in Romania in 2016 and which the U.S. plans to place in Poland; these presumably feature the Mk 41 Vertical Launching System, which is used on U.S. naval vessels for launching not only RIM-161 SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles but also Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range of up to 2,500 kilometers.
As its Foreign Ministry noted in 2017 when it officially accused the U.S. of “grossly violating” the INF Treaty, Russia cannot be certain that such launching systems will not be capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles and that Tomahawk cruise missiles will not be secretly deployed instead of RIM-161 SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles at missile defense bases, turning sea-based cruise missiles into land-based cruise missiles, which are banned under the INF Treaty. The INF Treaty also bans launchers for long-range cruise missiles.
The U.S., for its part, charges that Russia has tested and, presumably, deployed 9M729 land-based cruise missiles on Iskander tactical missiles' mobile launchers with a purported reach of more than 500 kilometers, a violation of the INF Treaty.
It would have been possible with goodwill to resolve these problems relatively quickly, through the creation of an expert task force that would develop additional verification measures. It was for this purpose—to adapt to the rapid development of military hardware, unforeseen by the two sides in 1987—that the Special Verification Commission was originally created.
As for Russia’s grievances, the treaty allows the parties to use intermediate-range missiles to test their missile defense systems. It would have been sufficient to clarify this rule in reference to specific missiles used to test missile defense systems, and potentially set limits governing how many such missiles can be stockpiled and how frequently they can be launched.
Long-range drones do, in fact, meet the treaty’s definition of land-based cruise missiles. But drones ultimately return to base and are analogous to military aircraft, not cruise missiles. Banning drones, which are being actively developed by the U.S., Russia, and other countries, is impossible, so it makes more sense to make the treaty’s relevant articles more specific and adapt legal norms to new hardware that governments will continue to use no matter what.
Missile defense bases in Romania and Poland are a more complicated problem, but not one that is impossible to resolve. For example, the two sides could agree to the exclusive U.S. use of launching systems that are visibly distinct from those that are technically compatible with Tomahawk cruise missiles. Or the U.S. could allow Russia to conduct an agreed-upon number of on-site inspections at short notice so as to convince the latter that the former’s launching systems contain anti-ballistic missiles, not land-based cruise missiles. Granted, this would require the host countries to consent to Russian inspections—consent they would be loath to provide unless the U.S. energetically pressured them to do so.
U.S. grievances are also complex yet surmountable. In line with the claim that 9M729 cruise missile system's range is less than 500 km Russia could allow the U.S. to have the same type of random short-notice inspections of its new land-based cruise missile units in order to insure by the length of its launch tubes (or missile fuel sections) that their range is below the Treaty threshold.
The main obstacles to these solutions are of a political character, including the generally confrontational character of bilateral relations and bellicose domestic feeling in both countries. In the U.S., practically no one acknowledges how problematic the deployment of U.S. missile defense bases in Eastern Europe is, and any talk of U.S. violations is dismissed as an effort to repel accusations against Russia, which are never properly scrutinized in the U.S. Indeed, some circles there do not care to find a mutually agreeable solution to the U.S.’s problems with Russia, and prefer to use these in their political campaign to discredit Vladimir Putin’s leadership.
In Russia, the proposed solutions — especially anything involving U.S. inspections of Iskander complexes—will meet fierce resistance from critics of the INF Treaty in particular and from the sceptics of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control generally.
In case of collapse of the nuclear arms reduction and non-prolifearation treaties in the coming 10-15 years, economic, military, and other trends may seriously weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrence and defense, which is based on a recent decade of significant military modernization programs. But if combined with the preservation and improvement of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control regimes, the military investments of the recent years may end up strengthening Russia’s defense and security as well as its great power status and international prestige.
Beyond a change in leadership in Washington, only Moscow can constructively resolve this crisis, by taking matters into its own hands. Given its inherent importance and its critical role in the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture, the INF Treaty must come to the fore of the bilateral agenda and take precedence over Ukraine, Syria, and all other matters, however significant they may be. Breaking arms control agreements is much easier than concluding them, but history shows that rejecting arms control agreements never improves one’s security and always damages it, a lesson that Moscow and Washington should heed.
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