Russia Breaches INF Treaty, U.S. Says

Tom Z. Collina

After months of speculation, the U.S. State Department announced in July that it had found Russia to be in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty over Moscow’s testing of a new medium-range, ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). The accusation comes at a time of heightened U.S.-Russian tensions over Moscow’s support for separatist forces in Ukraine.

“We have been attempting to address this very serious matter with Russia for some time, as the United States is wholly committed to the continued viability of the INF Treaty,” Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said Aug. 14. In remarks to a symposium at U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, she said the Obama administration was “asking Russia to return to compliance with the treaty in a verifiable manner.”

Gottemoeller said that the two countries previously “have been down the road of needless, costly, and destabilizing arms races.” She added, “We know where that road leads and we are fortunate that our past leaders had the wisdom and strength to turn us in a new direction.”

The INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, marked the first time the two superpowers agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals and utilize extensive on-site inspections for verification. The treaty, which is still in force, eliminated almost 2,700 intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, most of them Russia’s.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone about the INF Treaty on Aug. 1, according to the White House.

According to a July 28 New York Times report, Obama sent Putin a letter that day in which Obama asked for a high-level dialogue with Moscow to discuss ways to preserve the treaty and bring Russia back into compliance.

In an interview in early August, a diplomatic source familiar with the treaty controversy said senior Russian and U.S. officials are expected to meet in September to discuss the issue.

U.S. Allegation Unspecified

The Obama administration alleges that Russia is violating its INF Treaty obligation “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a GLCM with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers or “to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,” as a State Department report sent to Congress in July summarized it.

At a meeting in early July, the Principals Committee, which includes the national security adviser, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state, and the CIA director, “unanimously agreed” that the cruise missile flight test was a “serious violation,” the Times said. A senior administration official told Arms Control Today on July 29 that the intelligence community has “high confidence” in the assessment.

The State Department report, which surveys compliance with arms control agreements by the United States and other countries, did not specify the type of cruise missile in question or say how many tests have been conducted or when they occurred. The senior administration official said that the testing took place at the Kapustin Yar test site in western Russia. According to the Times story, Russia began testing the cruise missile as early as 2008, and the administration concluded that it was a compliance concern by the end of 2011, although officials do not believe the missile has been deployed. Gottemoeller first raised the issue with Russian officials in May 2013, according to the Times.

Unconfirmed reports have focused on Russia’s R-500 Iskander-K short-range cruise missile as the missile that precipitated the U.S. allegation. That system uses a road-mobile launcher, similar to the Iskander-M, which is a short-range, nuclear-capable ballistic missile. Russia reportedly is deploying the Iskander-M near Luga, south of St. Petersburg, near Russia’s borders with 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.

In the August interview, the diplomatic source said that according to the United States, the R-500 is not the focus of the allegation. That appears to be consistent with other available information on the allegation and the history of the R-500. According to the Times report, the GLCM considered to be a violation was first tested in 2008 and has not been deployed. The R-500 reportedly was first tested in May 2007 and deployed in 2013.

At an April 29 congressional hearing, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) offered an alternative explanation of the nature of the alleged violation and the platform involved. He said that Russia claims to have tested a new intermediate-range missile for use at sea, which is allowed under the INF Treaty if the missile is tested from a test launcher, but that Moscow used “what appears to be an operational, usable ground-based launcher,” which is not allowed. Sherman said that “it appears as if [the Russians] were developing a ground-based capacity for this intermediate[-range] missile.” (See ACT, June 2014.)

Russia Denies Charges

Russia denies that it is breaching the INF treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a July 28 statement that the allegations are “as baseless as all of Washington’s claims that have lately been reaching Moscow. Absolutely no proof has been provided.” The United States has accused Moscow of providing military support to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine, including the surface-to-air missile that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July.

“We have many complaints to make to the United States with regard to the [INF] Treaty,” the statement continued. “These include missile defense target missiles having characteristics similar to those of shorter- and intermediate-range missiles and the production by the Americans of armed drones which clearly fall under the [category of] land-based cruise missiles” in the INF Treaty, the ministry said.

Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, told Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 31 that Moscow was committed to adhering to the INF Treaty, Reuters reported.

According to the diplomatic source, Gerasimov expressed concern about U.S. plans to field the Mark-41 (MK-41) missile launcher in Romania and Poland as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the Obama administration’s policy for missile defense in Europe. According to an Aug. 1 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry, the sea-based MK-41 “can be used to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles, but [its] ground-launched version will be a gross violation of the INF Treaty.”

The MK-41 is currently used on U.S. Navy ships to launch missile defense interceptors, such as the Standard Missile-3, but it is also used to launch the Tomahawk intermediate-range cruise missile. As a sea-based missile, the Tomahawk does not run afoul of the INF Treaty. But once the MK-41 is based on land, as the United States plans to do next year, it would, in Russia’s view, conflict with the INF Treaty’s prohibition on possessing a ground-based launcher for intermediate-range cruise missiles.

The United States has not responded publicly to the Russian allegations. It is not clear if the land-based MK-41 would maintain its capability to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles or if the United States intends to modify the launcher to eliminate this capability.

Hill Response

In response to the State Department’s charge against Russia, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a July 31 press release that Russia’s action “cannot go unanswered.” Along with Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Rubio introduced legislation that would, among other things, initiate U.S. research and development on missiles banned by the INF Treaty. Such work is allowed under the pact.

Congress does not appear to be pressuring the administration to withdraw from the INF Treaty to protest Russia’s actions, in part because there is an apparent political consensus that the best outcome for the United States would be for Moscow to come back into compliance. “I do not believe the appropriate remedy in this case is for the United States to withdraw from the treaty,” Stephen Rademaker, an official in the George W. Bush administration, told the House Armed Services Committee on July 17. “Rather, since Russia so clearly wants out, we should make sure that they alone pay the political and diplomatic price of terminating 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.”

Russia has indicated that another answer to its concerns might to be to expand the membership of the treaty. In 2007, Russia and the United States issued a statement at the UN General Assembly reaffirming their “support” for the treaty and calling on all other states to join them in renouncing the missiles banned by the treaty.