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U.S. Raises INF Concerns With Russia
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Tom Z. Collina

The U.S. State Department confirmed in January that Russia may have breached a landmark arms control agreement by testing a new cruise missile, but has not concluded that Russia violated the accord.

Confirming the details of a Jan. 29 report in The New York Times, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a Jan. 30 press briefing that the United States has raised the “possibility of…a violation” with Russia and U.S. NATO allies. The specific U.S. allegation is that Moscow flight-tested a new medium-range, land-based cruise missile. Such a test would run afoul of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which permanently bans ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of traveling 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, has discussed the issue with her Russian and NATO counterparts, Psaki said, adding that “there’s still an ongoing review, an interagency review, determining if there was a violation.” Psaki indicated that the administration does not view the INF Treaty as being in serious jeopardy.

According to the Times, U.S. officials believe Russia began flight-testing the cruise missile in 2008 and that it has not been deployed. Gottemoeller first raised the issue with Russia last May, and Moscow has said it investigated the issue and considers the case closed, the Times said.

There has been speculation for months regarding Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty, but this is the first time that the suspect weapon has been identified as a cruise missile. Neither the State Department nor the Times identified what type of ground-launched cruise missile it might be, but unconfirmed reports have since focused on Russia’s R-500 Iskander-K. That system, reportedly first tested in 2007, would use a road-mobile launcher, as the Iskander-M does. The latter is a short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile that Russia has said it plans to deploy near NATO member countries in response to U.S. missile defense plans. (See ACT, January/February 2014.) It is not clear if the range of the R-500 exceeds the lower limit of the INF Treaty and, if so, by how much.

Previous reports had focused on Russia’s RS-26 ballistic missile, which Moscow has reportedly flight-tested at intermediate ranges. But because the RS-26 has also been tested at ranges greater than 5,500 kilometers, it is considered by both sides to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and therefore covered and allowed by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). It is not covered by the INF Treaty.

The INF compliance issue has surfaced at a sensitive time for President Barack Obama, who is seeking Senate confirmation of Gottemoeller and National Security Council staff chief Brian McKeon, who has been nominated to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. McKeon was one of the administration’s main liaisons with the Senate during the New START ratification debate.

Republican members of the Senate have held up Gottemoeller’s confirmation vote in the full Senate over the issue. Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) wrote in a Feb. 20 letter to McKeon that if the administration knew about Russia’s “potential violations” and did not fully inform the Senate before the New START vote, “this would represent a serious abrogation of the administration’s responsibilities.”

In a Feb. 6 letter, three Republican House committee chairmen asked Obama to take stronger action against Russia in response to the possible violation, writing that failing to act “would only invite further violations by Russia.”

The INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, has become controversial in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. In 2007, Putin expressed concern that the INF Treaty’s missile ban applies to Russia but not to neighboring countries. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes in his recent memoir that, also in 2007, Russian officials suggested to their counterparts in the George W. Bush administration that the two countries withdraw from the treaty.

Last summer, Sergey Ivanov, the Kremlin chief of staff, publicly questioned the value of the treaty, saying Russia has more potential threats on its borders than the United States does. “The Americans have no need for this class of weapon, they didn’t need it before and they don’t need it now,” Ivanov said, according to RIA-Novosti. “They could theoretically only attack Mexico and Canada with them, because their effective radius doesn’t extend to Europe.”

The State Department reports annually to Congress on global compliance with arms control agreements. The most recent unclassified report, covering 2012, did not mention any INF Treaty compliance issues. The report covering 2013 has not been released.