The United States’ suspension (as of February 2) of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was no surprise—but still delivered a hard blow to Russia’s international position. President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the outdated but still important Cold War–era agreement back in October; and in early December, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) granted Russia 60 days of respite to return to full compliance. Instead, Moscow held a briefing last month for foreign military attachés (the US and its allies duly refused to attend), at which it demonstrated a model of the 9M729 missile accused of violating the treaty (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, January 24). This could have been a first step toward defusing the crisis—if Russia had done this two years ago. But a week prior to the deadline on proving a return to compliance, the briefing revealed itself to be nothing more than a propaganda stunt. That said, Washington has offered Moscow another six-month window to eliminate its 9M729 missiles and launchers in a verifiable way, after which the US’s suspension will be either rescinded or converted into a full withdrawal (Kommersant, February 1).
The reaction by Russian officials has been predictably defiant. The foreign ministry promised proper responsive measures, and the Kremlin declared that the Trump administration’s announcement of the suspension “proved” the long-cherished US intention to destroy the INF Treaty (RIA Novosti, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 1). Meanwhile, mainstream Russian experts have put forward elaborate speculation regarding the possible steps Moscow might take in response. They have also pointed to a series of well-developed Russian ballistic missile projects, asserting that, in contrast, that US is lagging behind (Gazeta.ru, February 2). Assuming that no new US missiles will be deployed to Europe for many months to come, Moscow showed no flexibility whatsoever in the last round of talks on rescuing the damaged treaty (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 31).
Russian declarations of adherence to the INF and denials of any violations are mostly aimed at impressionable Europeans, who are indeed upset by the breakdown of structures ensuring their habitual security. Moscow tries to encourage European leaders to put pressure on Trump. But the latter in unlikely to yield to their pleas and may grow even more irritated with his allies (Russiancouncil.ru, February 1). NATO solidarity has so far held steady in this crisis, and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has successfully prevented any underlying disagreements from undermining the common position (RBC, February 1). Nevertheless, Russia keeps probing every fissure, expecting that the irreducible European reluctance to increase defense expenditures will exacerbate current transatlantic tensions.
The main loss for Russia in the expiration of the INF Treaty is the failure to sustain a meaningful dialogue with the US. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin’s instruction to his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, not to initiate any new contacts with the US betrays the bitterness of this predictable fiasco (Newsru.com, February 2). The combination of old agreements and new conversations on arms control matters, in which Russia is engaged as an equal partner of the US, is one of the main underpinnings of its international status as a “great power.” The Kremlin cannot give credibility to Trump’s suggestion to negotiate a “much better” treaty and has to work on the assumption that the New START Treaty (2010), perceived by the Trump team as a legacy of President Barack Obama, will expire in 2021 (Russiancouncil.ru, February 1).
This dismantlement of the key pillars of the arms control system will hardly accelerate the arms race, if only because Russia is already researching and deploying new weapon systems as fast as it can (Kommersant, February 1). It was Putin’s sensational presentation of “wonder missiles” last March that proved the irrelevance of old treaties and limitations for restraining Russian attempts to achieve military-strategic superiority. And the propaganda campaign about Russia’s superior hypersonic missiles continues non-stop (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, February 2). But now, Putin threatens to mass-produce land-based supersonic missiles of intermediate range, as if Russia has greater capacity for sustaining a missile race than the Soviet Union had in the early 1980s (RBC, February 2). The plight of the Russian space program, which used to be a major Soviet achievement but is now curtailed and bedeviled by technical failures, exemplifies the degradation of the old industrial base (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, January 31, 2019; see EDM, February 1, 2018 and July 19, 2018). The military-industrial complex cannot be isolated from the stagnation in the Russian economy and consumes resources that could have boosted civilian enterprises, for instance aircraft production (Forbes.ru, January 29, 2019).
One new reality that Moscow fails to grasp is its much-diminished importance (compared to during the Soviet era) when it comes to global nuclear matters. The Kremlin cannot quite comprehend that trade negotiations with China could actually be much more important to the US than the breakdown in arms control talks with Russia (Carnegie.ru, January 30).
A resolution to the US and Russia’s mutual accusations of INF non-compliance is presently improbable. In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev signed this arms control treaty in order to pull the Soviet Union out of its unsustainable confrontation with the West. Whereas, today, the Putin regime is convinced that such a confrontation is a necessary precondition for its own continued existence. “Patriotic” mobilization is the only means of explaining away Russia’s economic decline; therefore, Moscow is actively willing to generate new conflicts (Republic.ru, February 1). Nevertheless, public discontent is still spreading, and a recent opinion poll showed a big increase—to 45 percent compared with 28 percent a year earlier—in the feeling that the country is on the wrong course (Levada.ru, January 31).
Putin seems convinced that any step back from his defiant stance as the challenger of US dominance will be interpreted—by the domestic audience, by Western adversaries and by China—as proof of his weakness. He cannot believe that missiles are no longer a useful instrument of politics, but his posturing makes a weak impression and his bluffs are frequently dismissed as irrelevant. Russia has gained some advantages by breaking the various rules of international behavior. But it will probably find itself at great disadvantage in the harshly competitive environment where many habitual rules no longer apply. It has ardently contributed to undermine the arms control regime and will now have to deal with the potentially dangerous consequences.