By Diane Barnes
Russia and the United States failed in a high-level September meeting to end a standoff over Washington’s claim that Moscow breached a landmark nuclear arms control treaty by testing a new medium-range, ground-launched cruise missile as early as 2008, officials from the two governments said. The U.S. State Department formally issued the long-discussed claim in a July 2014 compliance report amid rising international tensions tied to Moscow’s backing of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
The United States asserted that the Russian tests constituted a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia and the United States continue to possess nuclear arsenals far larger than any other country’s, and the alleged violation has been seen as further dampening prospects for any new bilateral initiative to further draw down the stockpiles.
“The U.S. concerns were not assuaged in this meeting,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a press briefing on Sept. 11, after the INF Treaty compliance meeting in Moscow. “We had a useful exchange of ideas. We agreed to continue the dialogue.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement affirming a shared interest in keeping the treaty in force, but added that “no satisfactory answers were given to Russia’s questions” in the September talks. Russia did not elaborate on its concerns, but Moscow recently suggested that Washington might itself be guilty of violating the treaty.
“It is not a secret that the main problems with [the treaty’s] implementation occurred many times because of the United States,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a July 31 statement. The ministry contended that Washington has breached the pact by deploying armed unmanned aerial vehicles and by launching target missiles to test its defensive interceptors. Moscow tied additional possible violations to the MK-41 Vertical Launching System used on some U.S. warships.
The United States dismissed the suggestion that it may be guilty of stretching the pact’s terms. “We…reject any notion of any noncompliance issues on our side here,” Harf said at the briefing. The U.S. delegation to the meeting was led by Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. The team included representatives from the National Security Council and the Defense and Energy departments.
Washington and Moscow agreed to convene additional discussions, but neither side offered any hint of the timing for follow-up talks. In Sept. 16 remarks to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov appeared noncommittal about pursuing the exchange.
“It is possible that the dialogue on the issue will continue,” Ryabkov said. “However, at the moment we have no common understanding of when and where this dialogue may continue.”
The 1987 treaty, which remains in effect, was the first between the United States and Soviet Union to incorporate a tight regime of on-site inspections to verify reductions to their respective nuclear stockpiles. The pact eliminated a combined total of nearly 2,700 intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The lingering compliance controversy has remained a key concern on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where lawmakers were set to weigh a draft proposal aimed at barring nuclear arms reductions beyond those mandated under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
The initiative, contained in a continuing appropriations resolution for the 2015 fiscal year, would bar the administration from unilaterally pursuing nuclear weapons reductions beyond those required under New START. That pact requires Russia and the United States to cap their nuclear deployments by 2018 at 700 missiles and bombers on each side, with backup fleets of no more than 100 additional delivery vehicles. The treaty also would bar each country from deploying more than 1,550 nuclear warheads.
Spokespeople for Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), declined to specifically address how the lack of progress in September’s bilateral talks might affect their consideration of the proposed New START limitations.
Meanwhile, others in Congress have considered the military impact of any new Russian missiles deployed in breach of the treaty. In a Sept. 8 commentary for Foreign Policy magazine, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) argued that if Moscow deployed the mobile, intermediate-range cruise missile, it would undermine NATO deterrence and assurance planning, as a ground-launched weapon would be “much harder to find” than counterparts deployed on submarines and aircraft.
“The Russian deception of negotiating a nuclear arms reduction while building up nuclear arms poses a direct threat to the United States,” said Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Speaking to The New York Times in April, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the head of U.S. European Command, said the United States and NATO would need to respond in some fashion if they could not resolve concerns over Russia’s possible INF Treaty violation.
“It can’t go unanswered,” added Breedlove, who is also NATO’s top-ranking commander.