The United States’ National Security Advisor John Bolton arrived in Moscow on October 22, shortly after President Donald Trump announced Washington would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. Bolton met Russia’s main national security and defense figures, including National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin, in the Kremlin. Despite expectations from some quarters, Bolton did not bring with him an official diplomatic note announcing the US intent to withdraw from the INF. This led to a certain level of hope in Moscow that Trump’s INF announcement was only a threat, intended to put pressure on Russia to rescind its alleged violations of the treaty. But Bolton was unequivocal in his public statements in the Russian capital: The INF is outdated and one-sided; it does not include China; Russia has been in violation but denies it and shows no signs of remorse; Trump’s decision to abandon the INF is final, and the official note of termination will arrive in due course. The treaty becomes invalid six months after the delivery of such a note (Kommersant, October 24).
The Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denounced Trump’s intention to scrap the INF as well as to procure more nuclear weapons and outspend Russia and China “until they return to their senses.” According to Peskov, this is a declaration of a nuclear arms race, and Russia will take all necessary steps to ensure its national security (Interfax, October 24). State-connected Russian experts accused the US of seeking total military dominance. The visit by Bolton to Moscow was widely described in the Russian media as a watershed moment, after which all illusions of partnership have dissipated. From now on, it will be deterrence—just like during the Cold War. Lieutenant General (ret.) Eugenie Budzinsky, a former chief of the General Staff’s Foreign Affairs Directorate, expressed confidence that Russia will prevail, using “asymmetrical responses” to counter US threats (Kommersant, October 24). Meanwhile, Captain 1st Rank (ret.) Konstantin Syvkov published an outline of a possible “asymmetrical response” scenario, which was carried by much of the Russian media. His proposed plan involved producing and deploying 40–50 super-heavy nuclear devices with yields of “over 100 megatons” that could be delivered by heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or special nuclear torpedoes. These weapons, he suggested, could turn the United States into an uninhabited wasteland, cause a tectonic break-up of California and trigger an eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano. If such a weapon is aimed at the US, Syvkov’s argument goes, its ruling elite will be ready to negotiate a strategic surrender and remove all sanctions imposed on Russia (RIA Novosti, October 24).
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov complained that relations with the West and the US are worse today than they ever were during the Cold War. He also added that attempts to improve ties in Helsinki last July during the Trump-Putin summit were jeopardized by Washington insiders. According to Ryabkov, the “broader West” is an adversary that acts to undermine Russia: “So why should we care about our standing among adversaries?” In the Russian-language version of Ryabkov’s FT interview, circulated by the semiofficial Interfax news agency, the term “adversary” was translated as “protivnik.” This word is a particularly specific and strong term in the Russian military argot, meaning an enemy combatant with whom one is at war. During the Cold War, the US and its allies were termed by the Russian (Soviet) military as “veroyatny protivnik” or “probable enemy combatants,” even though actual direct combat never officially commenced. If and when it did, the “probable” adjective would have been removed. Ryabkov seems to have done that already, according to the Interfax translation (Interfax, October 10).
Anti-American rhetoric has been rampant in Moscow, but top Russian officials, including Putin, do not seem overly distressed by the announced US pull-out from the INF. The Pentagon does not appear to currently possess any land-based, medium-range delivery systems it could deploy even if the treaty is scrapped. A new generation of cruise missiles that may be deployed on land, sea or in the air is only being developed. A possible new generation of US precision-guided intermediary ballistic missiles is apparently also on the drawing board, while Russia already has missiles it could deploy relatively cheaply. The Iskander missile system was initially designed to carry ether ballistic or cruise missiles. The Iskander-M ballistic missile may have a range somewhat longer than the INF allowed 499 kilometers. While the modified Iskander-K launcher could fire Kalibr-type cruise missiles with ranges dependent on the type of engine employed and quantity of fuel on board. The first successful test firing of an Iskander-launched cruise missile was in 2007. And after that, Russian top military officials and Putin began to talk about the need to renounce the INF (RIA Novosti, May 29, 2007; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 30, 2007). In October 2017, Putin again publicly denounced the treaty as “one-sided” and promised that “if the INF collapses because of the Americans, our response will be immediate and reciprocal” (Kremlin.ru, October 19).
According to Ryabkov, the 9М729 land-based cruise missile launched from the modified Iskander launcher was never tested to fly farther than just under 500 kilometers, which does not violate the INF terms. The last test launch of the 9М729 was during Zapad 2017. Of course, all this is impossible to verify independently, and Ryabkov does not actually say whether or not the 9М729 physically lacks the capacity to fly further. With the total lack of mutual trust between Washington and Moscow, Ryabkov concedes, talks between military experts on alleged INF violations ended in acrimony (Interfax, October 24).
The modified Iskander launcher is much cheaper as a mass-production cruise missile carrier, and its maintenance costs are low, compared to warships, submarines or strategic bombers. The Iskander-K is also easier to hide than a frigate. The relatively inexpensive mass deployment of Iskander-type cruise missile launchers would permit Russia to target US troops, bases and allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. As Bolton left Moscow, Putin reiterated that the Russian response to the INF’s cancelation “will be swift and effective,” adding, “European nations, which may allow the US to deploy [intermediate-range] missiles on their territory must expect to be targeted. Why put Europe in such a situation?” (Interfax, October 24).
In the immediate aftermath of the INF treaty’s scrapping, Russia may achieve a military-technical advantage as well as an additional bonus—a strong PR point to try to undermine Western unity and break the cohesion inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).