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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Russia Halts Missile Launch Notices

Wade Boese

Russia recently stopped providing advance notice of its ballistic missile launches to fellow members of a voluntary missile transparency and restraint regime. Other participants, including the United States, also are not fully implementing their commitments.

Established in November 2002, the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC) calls on its 128 participating states to “exercise maximum possible restraint” with respect to missiles capable of delivering biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. In addition to cutting their missile forces if possible, participants are supposed to provide annual reports on their missile inventories and activities and give advance notice of ballistic missile and space-launch vehicle firings. Ballistic missiles and space-launch vehicles are technically very similar.

Russia’s suspension took effect Jan. 1 and reportedly will last at least one year. HCOC activities are supposed to be confidential, and Russia did not publicly declare the halt, but several foreign government officials confirmed Russia’s action to Arms Control Today.

The suspension only applies to pre-launch notices, which the Kremlin began providing in 2004. Russia is expected to continue submitting an annual report, which many HCOC members fail to do. Most of those members, however, do not possess ballistic missiles or space-launch vehicles.

The foreign sources said Russia identified two main reasons for the suspension. One was the refusal of other HCOC members to adopt a Russian proposal to make the annual reports and pre-launch notification requirements more optional rather than politically binding. Moscow contends that such a move might make code membership more attractive to nonmembers, which include growing missile and space technology powers Brazil, China, India, Iran, and Pakistan. North Korea, a leading missile proliferator, also is not a participant.

Russia’s other rationale for its suspension was that some current members have not been issuing pre-launch notifications. Presumably, the key culprit in Russia’s eyes is the United States, which has never supplied pre-launch notifications through the code. The United States has regularly provided HCOC annual reports.

Washington and Moscow also bilaterally exchange advance notice on their ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missile flights as required by a 1988 missile launch notification agreement and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limiting their strategic forces. Those notices are conducted through the two countries’ Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers.

When it signed the code in 2002, the United States said it would start providing advance notice under the HCOC when a U.S.-Russian Pre- and Post-Launch Notification System became operational as part of the planned Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC). The intended purpose of that center is to enable the United States and Russia to share in real time their early-warning data on ballistic missile launches worldwide.

The JDEC, however, has yet to begin operation. The Russian government recently released the property on which the center was to be built for another purpose. Moscow has identified two alternative sites for the center, according to a U.S. government official, who in a Jan. 15 interview with Arms Control Today declined to confirm or comment on Russia’s HCOC suspension.

Progress on the JDEC, initially agreed to in 1998, has been delayed for several years due to various disputes on tax and liability issues. The United States and Russia reached an agreement in 2005 that U.S. officials saw as a basis for resolving the JDEC holdup, but the two governments are still working out legal details. (See ACT, June 2006. )

Moreover, Russian officials told Arms Control Today last April that their country would not move ahead on the JDEC while the United States continues efforts to base strategic anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. U.S. government officials say that Russia has not informed them of that linkage.

Two foreign officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the HCOC confidentiality rule, speculated that other code members providing advance launch notices would continue to do so despite the Russian suspension. They named France, Japan, Norway, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom as some states that have made notifications. But the officials worried that U.S. and Russian nonparticipation would make it less likely that nonmembers might join.

Meanwhile, Russia Feb. 12 proposed the negotiation of a treaty proscribing weapons in space and a universal pact proscribing ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (see page 50 ). Washington and Moscow renounced and eliminated that category of missiles in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Marius Grinius, Canadian ambassador and permanent representative to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament, questioned Moscow’s proposals in light of the current HCOC status. “It may well be unrealistic to call for new [transparency and confidence-building measures] when existing ones that we have worked so hard to create, like the HCOC, are regrettably falling into disuse, whatever the rationalization may be,” he said.

The Austrian government, which serves as the HCOC’s voluntary executive secretariat, notes on its foreign ministry website that members at their annual meeting last year discussed “strengthening” the code’s various confidence-building measures, including pre-launch notifications. Members are scheduled to gather this year May 29-30 in Vienna.

The HCOC is the second agreement in as many months that Moscow has suspended. Last December, Russia indefinitely halted its participation in inspections, data exchanges, and notifications mandated by the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2008 .) Russia accused the United States and its Western allies of ignoring Russian concerns and not abiding by the treaty, which limits the deployment of tanks and other heavy weaponry in Europe.