Analysis | Trust But Verify: The Demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty
Atlanta — The United States has officially announced that it is withdrawing from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty in response to what it deems a “material breach” of the Treaty by the Russian Federation. Since 1987, the Treaty has served to limit American and Russian stockpiles of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles and their launchers to exclude those with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The six-month process for the United States to suspend its obligations officially entered into effect on 2 February. Although the announcement marks the official loss of the Treaty, the unraveling of the INF has been years in the making.
The INF Treaty marked the peaceful end of a crisis between the Soviet Union and United States. Tensions had escalated when the latter responded to the placement of a Soviet SS-20 missile (capable of a three-nuclear warhead payload) in Europe by placing its own Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe. At no other point during the Cold War was there more promise for cooperation between the two rival powers that at the signing of the INF by American President Ronald Reagan and USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Treaty has faced significant controversy in recent years as both Russia and the United States have accused one another of violating it. Since 2014, the United States has convened five meetings of technical experts and more than thirty high-level engagements between officials to discuss Russian violations of the INF, claiming that the Russian 9M729 cruise missile exceeds the 500-kilometer threshold stipulated in the Treaty. Russian officials have repeatedly denied any such violations and maintain that the 9M729 is capable of a range just short of the 500-kilometer threshold. Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin contends that the United States is to blame if the Treaty collapses, pointing to the American systems in Romania and potentially Poland as current violations of the Treaty.
In December 2018, the United States issued Russia an ultimatum to “change course” and return its stockpile to compliance with the stipulations of the Treaty within sixty days. Last week’s NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels represented yet another attempt to prevent the collapse of the INF. NATO allies renewed the call for Russia to destroy the 9M729 cruise missile as a violation of the Treaty while Russian officials conducted a presentation of the system’s capabilities, which was not attended by representatives of the United States or other Western diplomats. The Russian government expressed frustration at what it perceived as its NATO counterparts’ lack of “readiness for bilateral dialogue.”
As the February 2nd deadline approached, United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced Friday that “Russia has refused to take any steps to return real and verifiable compliance over these sixty days.” With Russia continuing to operate outside the boundaries of the Treaty by maintaining the 9M729, the United States would face a strategic disadvantage by remaining constrained by the stipulations of the Treaty. NATO issued a statement soon after supporting the American withdrawal from the INF. The statement highlighted the Alliance’s efforts since the December ultimatum to encourage Russia to dismantle the 9M729 and return to compliance with the Treaty, while placing “sole responsibility” for the Treaty’s end on Russia.
The risk assessment is that both the United States and Russia are justifying recent actions with the perceived violations of the Treaty by the other party. NATO and the United States have consistently appealed to Russia to return to compliance by dismantling the 9M729 as it surpasses the 500-kilometer threshold. Meanwhile, Russia argues both that the range of the 9M729 does not reach that threshold and that the United States has already violated the Treaty with the placement of the Aegis systems in Romania. This has resulted in reactionary behavior by both parties and poses a risk to international stability if no mutually agreeable point of offensive instigation can be identified.
The Kremlin has yet to issue an official response to Friday’s announcement, but further denials of Russia’s violation of the Treaty are expected. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss Russia’s options in response to the U.S. withdrawal. Putin emphasized that “we must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race.” The tone of the meeting was largely reactionary to the decision to withdraw as Putin consistently indicated that Russia would mirror American actions. He highlighted this explicitly halfway through the meeting by instructing Shoigu to respond symmetrically to the United States. Putin outlined that Russia’s “US partners announced that they are suspending their participation in the INF Treaty, and we are suspending it too. They said that they are engaged in research, development and design work, and we will do the same.” Such a response was to be expected since Putin had indicated at a Defence Ministry board meeting in December that he will be “forced to take additional measures to strengthen [Russia’s] security” should the United States withdraw from the Treaty.
Scarce evidence exists that either the United States or Russia desire an arms race comparable to that of the Cold War. Instead, the actions of both countries exhibit intentions to constrain, not provoke, the escalation efforts of nuclear capabilities by the other. Also concerning to both countries is the lack of security guarantees. For the United States, this concern has become manifest in Russia’s noncompliance with the INF Treaty; while for Russia, this concern has largely been the increasing number of NATO’s nuclear sharing missions in non-nuclear, European states. Particularly of concern to Russia have been NATO efforts in Turkey, which houses a substantial number of tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, it was irrational for Moscow to decrease or suspend its own nuclear technology development while such weapons exist in close proximity to its borders by a collective security organization such as NATO. Conversely, the United States views Russia’s possession of a substantial tactical nuclear weapons arsenal as threatening to Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.
With the American withdrawal from the INF, there is now little incentive for Russia to suspend development of advanced nuclear technologies at all. Furthermore, the Kremlin will no longer initiate, or claim to initiate, any collaborative discussions with the United States and NATO on the topic of nuclear defense capabilities. Putin expressed willingness to negotiate if invitations were extended, however he instructed Lavrov and Shoigu “not to initiate talks on these matters in the future” and instead to wait until Russia’s “partners are ready to engage in equal and meaningful dialogue on this subject.” Thus, the diplomatic language of choice from this point forward is action, however inviting or assertive it may be. As indicated during Saturday’s meeting, we can now expect the Kremlin to mirror American actions in regards to its defense capabilities, and we can anticipate Russia will translate the strategic inference of the locations of those capabilities.
Thus, when an official statement by the Kremlin is released regarding the United State’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, we can expect a continued reactionary tone and implications of further development of the 9M729 and other defense capabilities currently prohibited under the INF Treaty. However, we can be certain that any action the Kremlin decides to take will be conducted under the pretext that it is in response to a certain action or policy by the United States or NATO.
As Putin stressed during Saturday’s meeting, he will “proceed from the premise that Russia will not deploy intermediate-range or shorter-range weapons, if we develop weapons of this kind, neither in Europe nor anywhere else until US weapons of this kind are deployed to the corresponding regions of the world.” Russia now has six months to return to compliance with the INF Treaty before the American withdrawal becomes irreversible. Although neither the United States nor Russia are yet able to agree upon who is to blame for the demise of the INF Treaty, there is no doubt that the next move is Moscow’s to make.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.
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