Putin’s Treaty Problem: The Lessons of Russia’s INF Treaty Violations

On September 11, 2013, Vladimir Putin penned an op-ed in the New York Times, objecting to possible intervention in Syria on the principled basis of international law and sovereignty: “The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.” Months later, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and continues to sponsor rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. This of course contravenes Russia’s international law treaty obligations under the UN Charter, as well as its political obligations under the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

A formal letter to Putin from President Obama now confirms what Congress has been saying for years: that Russia has also been violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prohibits all ground-launched missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. Reports of alleged Russian violations have long been filtering out in both the Russian and American press.

Some arms control commentators initially scoffed at the warnings, writing them off as frivolous accusations by hawkish legislators and overzealous journalists. On the basis of extensive classified information and confirmation by the Departments of State and Defense, the House of Representatives in May declared Russia in “material breach” of the treaty. At a July 17 House Armed Services Committee hearing, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer suggested that Russia’s INF missile tests were part of a larger and “disturbing pattern of disregard for international agreements.”

Those who scoffed should now take the lesson to heart. For one thing, we should reconsider giving Russia the benefit of the doubt for faithful treaty implementation. The old maxim for the Soviets still applies to Russia: trust but verify. Numerous questions remain about Russia’s compliance with the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the U.S. definition of obligations under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Biological Weapons Convention, to say nothing of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty now honored in the breach.

INF accomplished something that had never been done before. Some 2,692 intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles were destroyed, including the multiwarhead Soviet SS-20, the American Pershing II, and an American ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). By reducing threats of surprise and preemptive attack, the treaty defused tension, helped reassure NATO allies, and improved strategic stability.

By 2011, U.S. officials concluded that Russia had probably violated INF, but curiously the State Department omitted any mention of concern in its annual arms control compliance reports to Congress. Nor, apparently, was the Senate informed about concerns prior to ratifying New START. When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was finally briefed about the missile in November 2012, then-Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is said to have been frustrated, reportedly saying that, “We’re not going to pass another treaty in the U.S. Senate if our colleagues are sitting up there knowing somebody is cheating.” After receiving the 2014 compliance report, Congress should ask why it took so long to report and protest the violations.

Sadly, Russia’s record also calls into question prospects for a post–New START agreement to limit or even inspect Russia’s stockpile of some 2,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which have never been regulated under any treaty regime. Such reductions could well benefit the United States, but unilateral reductions and unverifiable Russian promises may not. Russia’s pattern of noncompliance should inform assumptions about what constitutes sufficient verification measures for future arms control agreements and, indeed, for future reviews of the U.S. nuclear posture.

Russia’s apparent “soft-exit” strategy of quiet violation tries to have it both ways—getting the benefits of being outside the treaty while still constraining the United States. Russian officials have complained about INF for years, on the grounds that they are now surrounded by a number of countries with these same capabilities—China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Israel. Similar complaints about conventional inferiority led to Russia’s noncompliance with CFE. This of course raises the question: what should the United States do if INF goes the way of CFE?

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review declared that “it is not enough to detect non-compliance; violators must know that they will face consequences when they are caught.” Speaking in Prague in 2009, President Obama declared that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” The State Department’s 2010 Verifiability Assessment for New START likewise indicated that arms control violations merited “significant” sanctions and “financial and international political costs” for “Russian cheating or breakout.” What, then, will those consequences be?

Obama’s letter to Putin reportedly notes that the United States will not violate the treaty by deploying currently prohibited INF-range systems. For the time being, this is a measured step. Trying to preserve INF while hedging against its termination could conceivably provide some constraint on additional Russian missiles. For now, the United States should not make it easy on Russia by taking it upon itself to terminate INF on Russia’s behalf. If Russia feels that it really needs INF-proscribed missiles, it should bear the onus of coming out and saying so. Assuming Russia mouths support for the treaty, reinstating INF’s intrusive inspections might be one way to verify compliance.

Cajoling Russia on INF will be hard, but several steps should be taken in the meantime. For one, the United States should exercise its right to call for a special meeting of the INF Treaty’s Special Verification Commission, which has not met since 2003. The State Department’s arms control report might also be supplemented with an appendix describing the violations in more detail, which conclusions could then be circulated widely among allies and partners.

The Pentagon should also begin exploring the feasibility of capabilities in the absence of the INF Treaty. A September 2013 report by STRATCOM and the Joint Chiefs described the “capability gap” for the United States under the INF treaty and several possible responses if the INF were to lapse. Those steps could include systems to hold at risk threats from Iran, North Korea, and China—and Russian’s own intermediate-range systems. Possibilities include an improved Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and using the Vertical Launch System planned for Aegis Ashore in Europe to host land-attack cruise missiles. In today’s budget environment, investment in shiny new “Pershing IIIs” seems unlikely. Land basing for existing sea-launched missiles, expanded missile defense deployments, and extended range guided artillery, however, might be easier and more desirable.

Russia also should be reminded that building INF-range missiles is likely to stimulate further interest in Europe-based missile defenses about which they so frequently and bitterly complain. In March, the Missile Defense Agency director testified that minor changes could make Aegis Ashore capable of cruise missile defense.

No one is yet recommending that these be deployed, but studying these options is fully consistent with the treaty. As arms control, INF originally benefited the United States because it exacted a relatively greater disadvantage to the Soviets. Whether or not we are better off in the absence of INF depends on a realistic assessment of whether the United States will end up relatively advantaged by actually fielding defenses and other currently proscribed systems.

“Whether [they] like it or not,” to use Putin’s phrase, Russia is obligated to honor its international agreements. The now-acknowledged INF violations, however, are the latest in Russia’s long pattern of dishonoring treaties. U.S. policymakers should respond firmly through diplomatic and other means, take concrete steps to hedge against formal or informal treaty lapse, and finally take to heart the lessons learned about Russia’s troubling arms control record.

Thomas Karako is a visiting fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Tom Karako
Senior Fellow, International Security Program and Director, Missile Defense Project