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INF Dispute Adds to U.S.-Russia Tensions
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June 2017

By Maggie Tennis

Reacting with strong language to a U.S. report alleging arms control treaty violations, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused the United States of “creating dangerous conditions” that could trigger a nuclear arms race. Further, Russia warned that U.S. missile defense development may give “hot heads” in Washington the “pernicious illusion of invincibility and impunity” that could lead to misguided unilateral action, as it claims occurred when the United States launched a missile strike against a Syrian airbase on April 7.

The annual U.S. report on arms control compliance, which for the fourth consecutive year alleges Moscow’s noncompliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the Russian Foreign Ministry’s response reflect contrasting views on arms control and nonproliferation issues and demonstrate the precarious condition of the U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control regime.

The State Department’s “Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” dated April 2017, also raised “serious” concerns with Russia’s compliance with the 1992 Treaty on Open Skies and cites Moscow for suspending the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), an accord intended to reduce stockpiles of weapons-usable plutonium that had stood as an example of U.S.-Russian cooperation against nuclear proliferation risks.

Russian Complaints

The report asserts that the United States last year remained in compliance with all of its treaty obligations. The Russian Foreign Ministry disputed the alleged violations and countered with what it said are U.S. violations of the INF Treaty stemming from its missile defense and drone programs, as well as citing other actions it said hinder arms control efforts.

The United States contends that Russia has tested and deployed a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 to 5,000 kilometers, a class of weapons prohibited by the treaty. The State Department report details steps Washington took in 2016 to resolve the dispute, including convening a session of the Special Verification Commission, the technical dispute-resolution venue created by the treaty. (See ACT, December 2016.)

Specific Details

The State Department, which previously provided no details of those consultations, disclosed in the new report elements of its evidence. The United States presented information to the Russians that included Russia’s internal designator for the mobile launcher chassis and the names of the companies involved in developing and producing the missile and launcher, the report says. The United States detailed “the violating GLCM’s test history, including coordinates of the tests and Russia’s attempts to obfuscate the nature of the program,” according to the report.

Further, the report says the missile in dispute is distinct from two other Russian missile systems, the R-500/SSC-7 Iskander GLCM and the RS-26 ballistic missile. The R-500 has a Russian-declared range below the 500-kilometer INF Treaty cutoff, and Russia identifies the RS-26 as an intercontinental ballistic missile treated in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The report also appears to suggest that the launcher for the allegedly noncompliant missile is different from the launcher for the Iskander.

Through the commission and other formats, the United States has provided “more than enough information for the Russian side to identify the missile in question and engage substantively on the issue of its obligations,” according to the report.

The Foreign Ministry, in its statement April 29, said Washington has failed to provide clear evidence to support its assertions. The United States has put forward only “odd bits and pieces of signals with no clarification of the unfounded concerns,” the ministry said.

The Foreign Ministry statement repeated Russian allegations that the United States is violating its INF Treaty obligations by positioning a missile defense system in Romania. “The system includes a vertical launching system, similar to the universal Mk-41 VLS, capable of launching Tomahawk medium-range missiles,” the ministry said. “This is undeniably a grave violation under the INF Treaty.” Yet, the U.S. Tomahawk intermediate-range cruise missiles are permitted under the agreement as a sea-based weapon. In addition, the Mk-41 has not fired GLCMs, and Washington says the launchers to be deployed in Romania and Poland are different than the ship-based version that has been used to fire Tomahawks.

Russia also cited the United States for testing ground-based ballistic missiles characteristic of intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and developing percussion drones that “fall under the definition of land-based cruise missiles contained in the INF Treaty.” It said Washington has been “simply ignoring Russia’s serious concerns.” The State Department report does not mention those disputes.

The Foreign Ministry statement identified the U.S. missile defense system as the No. 1 “unacceptable action” by the United States on a list of 11 areas of arms control concerns, which includes the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the U.S. failure to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

“It should be understood that the [U.S.] anti-missile facilities placed around the world are part of a very dangerous global project aimed at ensuring universal overwhelming U.S. superiority at the expense of the security interests of other countries,” according to the statement.

Plutonium Disposition

The State Department report found “no indication” that Russia had violated its PMDA obligations, but said that Moscow’s decision to “suspend” the accord “raises concerns regarding its future adherence to obligations” under the agreement. The Foreign Ministry said the report’s finding “does not correspond to reality” because Moscow only suspended the PMDA in response to Washington’s “hostile actions toward Russia” and a “radical change of circumstances” since the agreement was signed in 2000.

The Foreign Ministry said the Obama administration initiated plans to transition to a new method of plutonium disposition without obtaining proper consent from Russia. The statement reiterated Moscow’s position from October that Russia would resume the agreement if the United States adheres “to the agreed method of disposal,” which called for mixing the plutonium with uranium to create mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for power plant use, and reverses the other measures that prompted Russian suspension. Specifically, the ministry called for the U.S. to lift its sanctions against Russia enacted in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, compensate Russia for the damage caused by the sanctions, and reduce the U.S. military presence on the territory of NATO member states that joined the alliance after 2000.”

Posted: May 31, 2017