Termination of the INF Treaty: The End of Arms Control?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 172

Russian Iskander tactical missile system (Source: Lenta.ru)

Some 30 years ago, Moscow and Washington undertook the first ever mass elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons, as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Presidents Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev, was implemented. This spectacular disarmament signaled the end of the Cold War and was soon followed by the fall of Communist rule in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. The massive disarmament, nuclear and conventional, continued as follow-on treaties on arms control and confidence-building measures between East and West were signed; the massive tank armies that had faced each other in Central Europe for decades were withdrawn and disbanded. The threat of an all-European war faded away as countries cut back defense spending and troop battle readiness. But now, that trend is broadly reversing itself. And the INF Treaty, in particular, is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Since at least 2014, Washington has been accusing Moscow of violating the INF by testing and deploying land-based long-range cruise missiles, apparently using a modified Iskander land-mobile missile launcher fitted with a 9М729 missile (NATO classification: SSC-8) (see EDM, October 25, November 7). At a foreign ministerial gathering in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) headquarters, in Brussels, on December 4, 2018, the other members all expressed support for the United States in its contention that Russia was violating the 1988 treaty. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the allies were swayed by the intelligence the US had provided. At the same time, however, NATO allies have been hesitant to fully support US President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally abandon the INF, as announced on October 20, 2018. At a press conference in Brussels after the Alliance ministerial, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced that, because of Russian cheating, the US “will suspend its obligations [under the INF] as a remedy effective in 60 days, unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance” (TASS, December 4).

Pompeo’s statement appears to have been prepared before he met with his NATO counterparts because, immediately after he spoke, the US embassy in Moscow delivered an official note to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announcing the 60-day ultimatum and the pending “INF suspension.” The Russian foreign ministry rejected the US accusations of INF violations, but stated that Moscow is ready to talk to Washington on all issues of concern and will be studying the US note to see if it complies with the INF Treaty (Interfax, December 5). Indeed, the INF text has a clause that allows both the US and Russia to leave the treaty after a formal notification and a six-month waiting period. A “suspension” after 60 days is not envisaged. Moscow will be seeking clarification of what Pompeo had actually announced. The formula chosen by Washington to “suspend” the INF could, in itself, cause additional friction and angry exchanges between Moscow and Washington on top of all other bilateral issues of concern and tension.

Moscow has adamantly denied it ever violated the INF. Russian authorities acknowledge the 9М729 exists, and the Iskander was initially designed as a hybrid missile system intended to carry ether ballistic or cruise missiles. Nonetheless, the Russian side insists the 9М729 was never tested to fly over 500 kilometers and so is not in violation of the INF Treaty (Interfax, October 24). Russia’s chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, has accused Washington of falsely implicating Moscow in order to cover up the US’s own INF violations. Gerasimov restated the array of alleged US violations, which Russia has been promoting for many years in an apparent attempt to produce counter-arguments (Interfax, December 5):

  1. The use by the Pentagon of dummy rockets with properties similar to Iranian or Korean mid-range missiles to test its missile-defense (MD) interceptors.
  2. The use by the Pentagon of long-range attack drones.
  3. The deployment, at Deveselu Airbase (west of Bucharest, Romania), of a battery of SM-3 Aegis Ashore US MD interceptors in silo launchers constructed using standard МK-41 launch tubes. On US ships, these are used to launch different types of projectiles, including Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The Russian military have been arguing the warhead-less SM-3 interceptors at Deveselu could be secretly replaced by Tomahawks and used in a surprise attack against sensitive targets in Russia—for instance, President Vladimir Putin’s Bocharov Ruchey residence, in Sochi (see EDM, May 12, 2016). According to Gerasimov the Deveselu MD base is a blatant violation of the INF (Interfax, December 5, 2018).

Russian officials, including Gerasimov, pledge to reply with “adequate measures,” if the US abandons the INF. The chairman of the Duma defense committee and a former commander of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS), Colonel General (ret.) Viktor Bondarev, assured that Russia will cover “all sensitive points of its territory the US may target after abandoning the INF with MD and anti-aircraft defenses of its own.” Bondarev promised Russia will hasten the development and deployment of “unique weapons [apparently nuclear],” which may increase the risk of a global war (TASS, December 5). According to Gerasimov, Russia does not want to become engaged in a costly arms race but will defend itself against NATO encroachments (Interfax, December 5).

Though both Pompeo and Russian officials say they are ready to negotiate, their stated positions seem irreconcilable—at least within 60 days. The US accusations of Russian INF Treaty noncompliance connected to the development and deployment of the 9М729 are serious. But the actual number of deployed missiles of this type remains paltry; entirely scrapping the INF over this issue is possibly too strong a remedy. Meanwhile, the Russian counter-allegations of US violations of the INF seem ridiculous; but that makes them harder to resolve in a reasonable way. Pompeo’s 60-day grace period is likely to pass without any breakthroughs or last-minute agreements. At which point, the treaty will most surely go defunct. Influential vested interests that actually want the INF Treaty dead seem to exist in both Moscow and Washington. Moreover, the New START arms control treaty terminates in early 2021, and it does not look like it will be prolonged or replaced with a follow-on compact. Finally, the Open Skies Treaty and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Vienna Document—both agreements to allow observations of military activities and to boost trust between East and West—are themselves on the brink of collapse. Arms control, with its roots in 1970s Détente, is faltering, and the alternative will probably not please anyone.