US says Russia violated 1987 nuclear missile treaty. Any implications?

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Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow, Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation

This is a difficult question, actually. The nature of concerns has not been revealed in sufficient detail, so it is difficult to assess the implications. As a general point, as you know, Russia has been unhappy with the INF Treaty for a long time referring primarily to the fact that it is bilateral and that since its signing in 1987 many countries (almost all significant countries to the south of Russia) have acquired such missiles.

I would not be surprised to see Russia developing intermediate-range missiles, but equipped with conventional warheads rather than nuclear. The Russian military has talked about the need in such weapons since 2000. They did not abrogate the Treaty in 2006 or later (although they seemed on the verge in 2006-07) primarily because it was decided to give the mission to the Air Force, which could save the money.

To the best of my knowledge, Europe is not the primary target for INF – the main missions are to the south. In fact, in 2000 they raised the specter of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the context of Afghanistan.

At the moment, nothing, really prevents Russia from abrogating the INF – there are few political or military reasons not to do that. I am concerned that the US accusations, which have been finally made public (it took a long time – the Compliance Report was supposed to be issued in mid-April, but was held until today because they could not decide how to handle the INF issue) might actually push Russia to finally do that. It would be an ultimate irony if they then provide evidence that they had not violated the Treaty.

As far as I know, the Russians informed Americans last year that the tests of the cruise missile in question were for a sea-launched missile and that they were performed from land to save the money. I am not actually sure that the treaty explicitly bans that – that possibility did not enter the minds of negotiators. So it’s a grey area, I suppose. But at the moment neither party is interested in negotiations.

I quickly looked at the Compliance Report and in my view it might be difficult to prove the allegation about the test of an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). The report itself contains a reference to the Treaty provision that can provide Russia with the way out – namely, it can claim it was a test of a sea-launched missile (SLCM). In fact, according to Russian sources, Moscow provided an “unofficial” clarification last year that this was a SLCM test, which was conducted from land to cut the costs. Such tests are legal as long as they are conducted from a stationary launcher in a specially designated test range and the missile is not deployed subsequently as a GLCM. Basically, the only way to pin this as a violation is if the Russians conducted a test from an Iskander-K or another launcher that can be clearly identified as associated with ground-based missiles. This is unlikely, however. If this was a test, it was almost certain conducted from inside a designated test range; it was also most likely conducted from a stationary platform: this is the normal manner of testing because you need to measure a lot of parameters. In that case, they can easily make a claim the test falls under the exception for ALCMs and SLCMs. I suspect the uncertainty was the main reason why Department of State was reluctant to classify this as a violation until political conditions changed (the Compliance Report was due April 15, but was actually issued only yesterday and the controversy about the potential Russian violation of the INF was the main reason for an extra-long delay).

Of course, there is an off-chance Russians did something stupid or did not consult the Foreign Ministry, but that chance is low.

This is grey area, of course (or call it a loophole), but there you are. It is exactly the same problem as with the Russian R-26 ICBM – it was tested to strategic range and now classifies as strategic even though it was later flown at least twice to an intermediate range.

Possible Russian responses are two. The first is armed UAVs – they nicely fit the definition of a GLCM (those that are used solely for surveillance do not, but those that carry arms do). I was told years ago in Moscow that Russia raised this with the Bush Administration and even offered to modify the GLCM definition to exempt armed UAV, but the Bush folks were not interested, so the definition remained unchanged; this could be used now – substance is one thing, but law is another. Another similar grey area are targets that are used in missile defense testing, which can be construed as an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The fact that they only carry dummy warheads does not matter – there was a special joint understanding in response to a concern expressed in the Senate during ratification, which clearly stated that the treaty applies to missiles with any equipment: nuclear, conventional, exotic, etc.

Both possible Russian allegations are in the grey area, but if Moscow provides an official clarification of the kind I referred to above, it would also be able to raise similar issues itself. All this will strengthen the hand of those who want to abrogate the treaty.

Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

It’s important to remember that the INF Treaty has been extremely successful overall, verifiably eliminating all of the SS-20s, Pershings, and ground-launched cruise missiles that once threatened Europe and introducing on-site inspection as a major tool in U.S.-Russian (or, then, U.S.-Soviet) arms treaties for the first time.  In that way, it laid the foundation for the START, START II, and New START nuclear reductions treaties.

The Russian activities in question reportedly involve using a cruise missile developed for use as a sea-launched system and testing it from a launcher designed for ground-basing.  (Sea-launched cruise missiles are permitted under the treaty, ground-launched cruise missiles are not.)  There is no indication yet that Russia has deployed substantial numbers of this weapon.  The United States is demanding that any items tested in a prohibited way be eliminated.

While this test in itself does not brush aside the huge benefits for the world that the INF Treaty has provided, it will be seen in the United States as one more element of lawless Russian behavior, coming in the context of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, supply of weapons to Ukrainian rebels, and more.  Politically, if not skillfully managed, it will call into question the value of other existing arms treaties with Russia and make it even more difficult to move forward with new agreements.  These political impacts are likely more serious than the minor security impact of the reported violation itself.

Douglas Shaw, Assistant Professor of International Affairs, he Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University

A U.S. finding of Russian violation of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is very serious for several reasons.  First, it undermines stability directly by introducing a threatening weapons system that would not otherwise be deployed, which carries inherent dangers and could provoke the United States toward a potentially threatening response.  Second, it turns the positive confidence-building benefits of the landmark INF Treaty into a source of political dispute and distrust.  Third, it threatens the wider edifice of U.S.-Russian arms control agreements, raising the prospect of even more destabilizing deployments and increased tensions.  Fourth, it damages an historic symbol of cooperation for survival painstakingly constructed at a time of much greater political disagreement.  Russia should promptly return to verified compliance with all of its arms control obligations.

Andrew Futter, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester

This is not a new issue but its prominence is probably related to broader east-west cooling of relations.  The whole issue also revolves around US/NATO missile defence plans for Europe in my opinion.

Probably the best up to date resource on this can be found here.
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