Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces: What They Mean for the United States


The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was one of the most significant arms-reduction accomplishments of the Cold War. The INF Treaty led to the elimination of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 300 miles to 3,400 miles, their launchers, and associated support structures and support equipment. In 2014, the U.S. State Department officially accused Russia of violating the treaty. The allegation sparked renewed interest in the utility of the agreement for the United States, and in the implications of Russia’s violations for U.S. allies in Europe. Russia’s aggressive and illegal behavior and the inability of the United States to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty indicate that the treaty has outlived its utility and is no longer in the U.S. interest.

The 1987 Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles—known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty—was one of the most significant arms-reduction accomplishments of the Cold War era. The INF Treaty led to the elimination of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers (about 300 miles to 3,400 miles), their launchers, and associated support structures and support equipment.[1] In July 2014, the U.S. State Department officially accused Russia of violating the treaty.[2] The allegation sparked renewed interest in the utility of the agreement for the United States, and in the implications of Russia’s violations for U.S. allies in Europe. Russia’s aggressive and illegal behavior and the inability of the United States to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty indicate that the treaty has outlived its utility and is no longer in the U.S. interest.

Russia’s INF Treaty Violations

The State Department’s 2014 Annual Compliance Report found that the Russian Federation “is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”[3] The State Department affirmed the continuation of the Russian INF Treaty violations in its most recent report, published in May 2015.[4] The State Department allegedly did not provide a more detailed explanation to its Russian counterpart about the violation in order to protect U.S. intelligence sources and methods.[5] Russian officials have used this lack of specificity to deny U.S. accusations on the grounds that they need more information before responding to U.S. allegations.[6] They have also put forth their own accusations against the United States, accusing the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty by pursuing certain elements of the U.S. missile defense system.[7] Russian accusations are baseless, as the INF Treaty contains an exemption for U.S. missile defense systems when those systems are used solely for missile defense purposes. At the time the INF Treaty was signed, both the Soviet Union and the United States recognized missile defense as an important part of dealing with proliferating ballistic missile threats. The rationale has not changed and actually became more compelling after the end of the Cold War, as ballistic missile technology became cheaper and more accessible. In contrast to Russia’s strong objections to the U.S. missile defense system today, when the U.S. withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 2002, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the decision was “not a threat to the security of the Russian Federation.”[8]

The Russian charge that U.S. armed drones constitute a violation of the INF Treaty is equally fallacious. Armed drones are not subject to the INF Treaty at all. Moreover, the first post–INF Treaty armed drone was Russian.

Russia’s most serious violation of the INF Treaty seems to be a ground-launched cruise missile test.[9] Russia allegedly started conducting flight tests of a missile with a prohibited range as early as 2008.[10] The missile most likely is the R-500, which the Russian press reported to have been tested at a range prohibited by the INF Treaty even in its first tests.[11] U.S. officials have described the range of the prohibited cruise missile as “intermediate,” which means a range of over 3,000 km.[12] Russian sources have put the range of the missile at between 2,000 km and 3,000 km.[13] To violate the terms of the INF Treaty, a missile does not have to actually fly at a range prohibited by the treaty; it is enough for a missile to have the potential of flying at a range prohibited under the INF Treaty.[14] The U.S. government took four years and numerous consultations with Russian officials to determine that Russia is, in fact, in violation of the INF Treaty. Even worse, despite these serious compliance concerns, the Administration kept the Senate blind about its concerns regarding Russia’s violations during the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) ratification debate. Due to its numerous flaws and disadvantages for the United States, New START had the lowest Senate approval of any arms control agreement since the end of the Cold War. New START would have faced an even more challenging ratification process had the Senators known about the extent of the Administration’s compliance concerns.[15]

Mark Schneider, Russia expert at the National Institute of Public Policy, analyzes four additional issues involving Russian violation or circumvention of the INF Treaty. The first issue is the Iskander M ballistic missile system, currently deployed by Moscow, which reportedly has a range prohibited by the INF Treaty. The second is the new RS-26 Rubezh intercontinental-range ballistic missile, which the Russians have said was tested at a range of up to 2,000 km on three of its four successful tests.[16] RS-26 is either a violation or a circumvention, as opposed to a violation, depending on one’s interpretation of the INF Treaty “type rule.” The issue is whether the missile that the Russians say was tested at a range of up to 5,600 km is the same “type” under the INF Treaty as the missile that was tested three times up to 2,000 km. An intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) could be given a prohibited intermediate range, for example, by making its payload heavier than it was during the initial intercontinental-range test (thus making the trajectory shorter).[17] Russia could also fly an ICBM with two stages instead of three, thus achieving the prohibited range. In the past, Russia has converted some of its intermediate-range nuclear missiles to short-range missiles not prohibited by the INF Treaty by removing one of the stages. The RS-26 clearly does not have the range to function as a true ICBM.

Back to the Future and Strategic Context

Russian violations are neither new nor surprising given U.S. arms control experience with Moscow. Currently, Russia is in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, the Istanbul Commitments of 1999, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, an agreement to remove its military from Georgia and Moldova, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the INF Treaty.[21] Russia is possibly in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as interpreted by the United States. Moscow has a history of arms control violations; it has in fact violated almost every single arms control agreement it has ever signed with the United States, including an apparent violation of the ABM Treaty in the 1980s. Given this history, the INF Treaty violations should come as a no surprise and certainly will not be the last violations to occur. In the past, Russian officials reportedly made comments about the INF Treaty being detrimental to the Russian interest.[22]

The United States historically has not been very effective in bringing the Soviet Union and now Russia (as well as other arms control violators) into compliance with terms of international and bilateral agreements. For example, it took the U.S. five years to bring Russia back into compliance with the ABM Treaty, and the geopolitical situation had to change profoundly before that was possible.[23] Such a change is unlikely today.

Benefits of INF Treaty Withdrawal for the United States.

Similarly, the INF Treaty has limited U.S. institutional knowledge of the role of ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the U.S. defense posture. The United States has given little or no thought to integrating intermediate-range systems into its force posture since the INF Treaty was signed—despite the aggressive rise of China and threats from rogue states. Washington has given little strategic thought to the benefits of intermediate-range ballistic missiles for Russia in the past two decades, or to how such missiles could be used to counter the Chinese challenge. Only after Russia violated the INF Treaty did the U.S. government scramble to develop response options to these violations, even then doing so only under an intense pressure from leadership in the House of Representatives—and, as of this writing, it has done nothing. The reason is quite understandable: The United States is a global power, and the government’s resources, both manpower and finances, are limited and more likely to be used in response to real-world events than hypotheticals. Indeed, the international security environment has not become any friendlier after the end of the Cold War, even though the Department of Defense’s capabilities (both nuclear and conventional) have been massively cut.

A withdrawal from the INF Treaty should not be undertaken haphazardly, nor would any government treat it as such. The United States would have to prepare grounds for the withdrawal first, explaining the nature of Russia’s actions with respect to violations of the INF Treaty and the international context in which these violations are occurring. Additionally, the United States must work with its NATO allies and deny Russia the benefits of exploiting the issue of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies. Just as the alliance held in the 1980s during the deployment of the Pershing II missiles in West Germany, and in 2002 when the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty, allies can and will follow U.S. leadership when broader European security is at stake.

Russia and China. Russia today has conventional superiority along the entire length of the NATO border. The U.S. Army shut down one hundred installations between 2003 and 2010.[27] The Air Force has reduced aircraft and forces stationed in Europe by 75 percent since 1990.[28] As much as Moscow likes to point to NATO as its main adversary, geopolitically, the Kremlin has a much more serious challenger to the east: China. Relations between Russia and China have been collaborative in the past few years, even though both countries continue to compete in the region. The partnership is buttressed by a shared aversion to the global role the United States has played since the end of the Cold War. On the other hand, Russia’s structural problems (especially negative demographic trends) could present opportunities for an expanding Chinese population and a more assertive Chinese leadership. Hundreds of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants settle in Siberia each year, changing the ethnic makeup of the area. Asymmetry in economic might between the two countries is certain to complicate their relationship in the future.[29]

Implications for U.S. Allies. The INF Treaty issue is critical for European allies because of the context in which violations are occurring. Russia has been threatening NATO with nuclear attacks, thus severely undermining the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty regime, and has been intent on changing the post–Cold War security order in Europe by annexing Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Even before the U.S. government determined that the cruise missile test constituted a violation of the INF Treaty, Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, said that a “weapon capability that violates the I.N.F., that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with.”[32] Allies were informed about Russia’s violations in January 2014.[33]

Toward a More Sustainable Security Environment

Russia’s INF Treaty violations are yet another indicator that Russia intends to challenge the post–Cold War security order in Europe. Russian officials often threaten NATO with nuclear attacks and are intent on challenging the alliance’s resolve. So far, the Administration has failed to put forth any credible proposals on how to deal with Russian violations. Congress, the Administration, and NATO should take the following steps.

Congress should:

  • Direct the Department of Defense to decide on a response to Russian violations within three months. The Department of Defense began exploring potential military responses to Russian INF Treaty violations partly in response to House of Representatives leadership on the issue.[37] The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act calls for the research and development of military capabilities to counter the Russian threat.[38] The treaty does not restrict research and development related to these capabilities, although history shows that the United States is unlikely to invest in capabilities regulated by arms control agreements. The United States should assess how these capabilities would improve its defensive posture not only in the context of the potential Russian aggression in Europe but also in other possible conflict scenarios, such as in the Middle East and Asia.
  • Sanction Russian individuals and organizations involved in Russia’s intermediate-range nuclear forces program and those making threats to U.S. allies. The United States should identify and sanction personnel affiliated with Russia’s intermediate-range ballistic missile program. A model for this step can be the Russia and Moldova Jackson–Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 (H.R. 6156). These pieces of legislation provide the option of banning specific persons identified in the law from travelling to the United States, and allows the United States to freeze their assets.[39] Under Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller testified in December 2014 that the Administration is “actively reviewing potential economic measures in response to Russia’s violation,” but so far the Administration has been silent on describing what these measures are, let alone taking them.[40]
  • Coordinate with the President in continuing to develop and deploy ballistic missile defense systems, including those capable of addressing the Russian ballistic missile threat. The United States needs stronger missile defense capabilities to protect the U.S. homeland, space-based sensors and interceptors, more SM-3 interceptors, and programs to counter ballistic missiles in the boost and ascent phases of flight.
  • Continue to invest in U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons have dissuaded allies from pursuing their own nuclear weapon capabilities or enlarging their nuclear arsenals. They will continue to serve this important role in the future, as other nations are vigorously modernizing their nuclear arsenals and new nuclear-armed states emerge. U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe are a visible sign of a political commitment to NATO and the security of its members. To that end, the U.S. must, at the very least, conduct the B-61 gravity-bomb life-extension program, provide the F-35 jet fighter with a nuclear delivery capability, and modernize the air-launched cruise missile.[41] As an additional measure, the United States could also provide the Navy version of the F-35 with a nuclear delivery capability and start development of a nuclear submarine-launched cruise or ballistic missile for theater targeting.[42] The United States should seriously consider pursuing an in-kind response to Russia’s nuclear capabilities in Europe, including tactical nuclear weapons.

The Administration should:

NATO should:

  • Revitalize the alliance’s strategic thinking and nuclear war-planning. NATO Headquarters must increase the number of professional staff in its Nuclear Policy Directorate, which has been reduced significantly in the past several years, and increase its budget accordingly. This would empower the directorate to engage in curriculum development on nuclear policy and strategy at the NATO Defense College, re-activate an outreach program to educate senior elected officials on NATO’s nuclear force posture, develop and conduct nuclear planning exercises for the North Atlantic Council, and lead in developing NATO’s deterrence posture in response to a changing security environment. Likewise, manning levels and subject matter expertise at the Nuclear Operations Branch of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe should be increased to enable the development of more robust concepts of operations, doctrine, and exercises. Increasing the rank of the branch director to a one-star flag or general officer should be considered. The alliance must devote resources and time to nuclear issues and alternative futures at the staff level. The atrophy of the Nonproliferation Treaty regime, potential weapons of mass destruction threats from rogue states, and Russia’s nuclear threats should shape how the alliance thinks about its nuclear capabilities.
  • Continue to hold military exercises that are tailored to respond to Russia’s potential moves in the European theater, including ballistic missile shoot-downs. NATO should continue its efforts to plan military exercises designed to counter Russia’s military capabilities, including the nuclear dimension. While Russian threats are political, no one can know for certain that Russia will not carry out its nuclear threats. NATO must be prepared in the event that it does.
  • Integrate new NATO members into nuclear war plans in conventional roles. The 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act states that the alliance has “no intention, no plan, and no reason” to deploy nuclear weapons on new NATO member territory, including constructing new nuclear storage facilities or adapting old nuclear storage facilities.[45] Russia today is different; it threatens NATO with nuclear attacks and violates its airspace with nuclear bombers. By nature of its actions, Russia gave NATO the right to disregard this agreement as necessary to respond to Moscow’s belligerent actions. Poland took a leadership role when it participated in the 2014 Steadfast Noon exercise.[46] Other NATO members should follow suit.
  • Develop infrastructure supporting nuclear weapon deployments in new NATO states. Such developments would give the alliance an additional tool to signal its resolve should Russia continue its nuclear threats or escalate the conflict. The goal is to create a range of options for the alliance to respond to Russia’s aggressive behavior and to increase chances of de-escalating conflicts as soon as possible.
  • Strengthen the alliance’s conventional capabilities. Strengthening NATO’s conventional capabilities is critical for increasing chances of successfully managing potential escalation from the Russian side. All NATO members should spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. The refusal by many allies to meet this agreed standard is undermining the alliance as a whole, and partnership with the United States in particular.

U.S. leadership is absolutely critical for making sure that the alliance addresses Russia’s actions effectively and increases its potential to de-escalate conflict with Russia. The alliance can and must boost its political and military capability to deal with Russia’s threats, increase its credibility, and further assure its new members. Such an approach will tame Russia’s aggressiveness and prevent further escalation of conflict in the European theater.

—Michaela Dodge is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and Strategic Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

Full article: Russian Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces: What They Mean for the United States (The Heritage Foundation)

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