Russian INF Treaty Violations: Assessment and Response

In its latest annual report on arms control compliance (released in July 2014), the State Department formally accused Russia of having violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The basic allegation is that Russia violated its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of between 500 kilometers (km) and 5,500 km (the “Prohibited Range”) or to possess or produce associated launchers. Unfortunately, other than identifying the weapon of concern as a GLCM, the report is short on specifics.

Although statements from a growing chorus of congressional and administration officials have lent support to claims of Russian INF Treaty violations, it is difficult to assess the merits of these claims without knowing the actual facts. Nor is it easy to make definitive judgments regarding the severity of the violations or their implications. However, if it turns out that the violations are both significant and part of an ongoing pattern of abuse by Russia, then they would constitute an important and disturbing new development in relations between Russia and the West, a development that will require a careful and measured response.

What Do We Know?
While the State Department report provides few factual details regarding the alleged violations, we can glean additional, albeit unconfirmed, details from accounts that have been circulating widely in the press over the last two years. These press reports have tended to focus on two specific cases, both dating back to activities that commenced as early as 2008. The first involves an apparent flight test by the Russians of an RS-26 ballistic missile to a distance falling within the Prohibited Range (less than 5,500 km). The Russians have disputed that charge, claiming that the RS-26, which remains in development, is actually an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with an effective range in excess of 5,500 km. They have also apparently conducted flight tests of the RS-26 to ranges greater than 5,500 km.

Assuming the public reports are accurate, a straight-forward interpretation of the INF Treaty tends to support the Russian position. The INF Treaty expressly provides that a missile’s range shall be deemed to be the “maximum” distance that can be covered by the missile in its standard flight mode. If, therefore, the Russians have flight-tested the RS-26 to a range in excess of the 5,500 km limit, then under the terms of the INF Treaty, the RS-26 would be considered an ICBM, not prohibited by the treaty (although it would count against numerical START Treaty limitations).

The second, more relevant case involves Russia’s development and probable flight-testing of the R-500 (Iskander-K), which is in fact a GLCM. (Note that the Russians also produce the Iskander-M, which is a short-range “ballistic” member of the Iskander missile family. Here we focus exclusively on the Iskander-K, which is the “cruise” missile variant.) While the R-500 is supposed to have a range of less than 500 km, there have been reports in the Russian press that its actual range significantly exceeds that limit. There have also been statements to the U.S. media made by unnamed Obama administration officials that the R-500 has actually been flight-tested into the Prohibited Range on one or more occasions. Some reports estimate the actual range of the R-500 to be up to 2,000 km. Given that the INF Treaty expressly prohibits Russia from producing or flight-testing a GLCM that operates within the Prohibited Range, production and testing of the R-500 in the manner alleged would clearly constitute a serious INF violation. In fact, the State Department arms control report only discusses Russian violations involving a cruise missile, which would seem to indicate that the R-500, not the RS-26 (a ballistic missile) is the source of the dispute between Moscow and Washington.

Russian Motivations
Assuming then that U.S. allegations are well-founded, examining the factors motivating the Russians to engage in such misconduct will assist policymakers in developing an appropriate response. As with any decision involving the development of a major new weapons program, especially one potentially as controversial as this one, Russia’s actions are most likely driven by a combination of military, technological, and political factors.

The primary reason that Russia would seek to deploy a new GLCM is to enhance its war-fighting capabilities in the European theater. Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine continues to identify NATO (especially the prospect for further NATO enlargement) as a continuing source of potential military danger for the Russian Federation. In addressing this challenge, a new intermediate-range GLCM would provide Russia with important additional capabilities. Depending on range, a new GLCM would enable Russia to conduct longer-range precision strikes on key military and civilian targets throughout much of Europe in the event of conflict between Russia and the West. Armed with conventional payloads, Russia would gain the ability to strike key NATO military targets in the European theater. At the operational level, these would include air bases, supply depots, ports, command and control centers, and communication lines within the actual theater of operations. At the strategic level, the Russians could use such weapons to strike industrial facilities, power plants, transportation hubs, and strategic military commands further in the rear. A new GLCM would also provide Russia with the capability to threaten new U.S. missile defense systems located in Europe, including launch sites, command and control centers, and associated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) facilities.

The new GLCM could also provide Russia with the means of delivering nuclear strikes in key parts of Europe. Russian doctrine has long envisioned use of nuclear weapons as an integral part of Russia’s war-fighting strategy in Europe, as they are viewed as a means to compensate for Russia’s conventional military weakness. In fact, changes in Russian military doctrine dating back to the mid-1990s and reiterated in Russia’s most recent (2010) Military Doctrine have significantly lowered the threshold on Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons. In effect, Russia now reserves the right to use nuclear weapons to avert defeat in a conventional military conflict “when the very existence of the state is under threat.” By threatening or actually conducting such strikes, Russia hopes to force that adversary to either de-escalate the conflict or face additional strikes. Having an intermediate-range, nuclear-capable GLCM would give Russia greater ability to exercise this option.

Currently, Russia’s ability to strike targets in many parts of Europe remains limited. The Russian air force possesses the aircraft and precision strike systems capable of reaching at least some of these targets. Likewise, the Russian navy possesses a variety of surface and subsurface platforms capable of launching precision strikes against targets reasonably close to coastal regions. But these platforms cannot reach all such targets, especially those located furthest from Russian territory. Moreover, the Russians doubt the reliability of their existing air- and sea-launched platforms because of their perceived low probability of survival in a theater where the United States maintains the ability to achieve overwhelming naval and air superiority. As a stand-off weapon (i.e., one that can be fired from beyond the range of most enemy weapons), a GLCM can avoid preemptive strikes and more easily penetrate defended air space from greater distance, thereby making it much harder to defeat.

Finally, the Russians clearly desire to address the growing imbalance in intermediate-range systems between Russia and other states near its borders, such as China, Iran, and North Korea. These states have been free to develop and deploy intermediate-range missiles because they are not parties to the INF Treaty and therefore not subject to its restrictions. Russian officials have frequently complained about this disparity in informal discussions with the United States. They have pointed out as well the discrepancy between their strategic environment and that of the United States. Whereas Russian territory is clearly within striking distance of several states’ intermediate-range weapons, the United States faces no equivalent threat. Deployment of intermediate-range GLCMs would give Russia the ability to strike several of these potential adversaries, thereby enhancing its deterrence capability.

Policy Options
Assuming the alleged violations are significant, a U.S. response is clearly in order. Otherwise, the Russians can simply game the situation by illicitly fielding banned weapons while avoiding the stigma associated with revoking the INF Treaty altogether. (See Jim Thomas, “Testimony Before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces on the Future of the INF Treaty,” July 17, 2014.) The United States must take the lead in responding because it is the sole Western signatory to the INF Treaty, although it will need to consult closely with its NATO allies, which will be most affected by any change in the status of INF deployments in Europe. While some in the United States have questioned the continuing usefulness of the INF Treaty, the United States will clearly be much better served if it can preserve the treaty by bringing the Russians back into compliance. After all, by preventing the Russians from deploying a whole class of precision strike weapons capable of targeting U.S. allies in both Europe and Asia, the treaty substantially reduces the potential military threat posed by a resurgent Russia. The treaty also eliminates weapons that, because of their short flight times, make early warning problematic, thereby reducing the risk of mistakes or preemptive attacks. Moreover, the United States has less dependence on ground-launched intermediate-range weapons, because it retains the edge in air- and sea-launched missiles of comparable range.

So what should the United States do? Initially, the United States should continue to pursue its available diplomatic options. Initial talks on the issue recently held by U.S. and Russian representatives in Moscow were a necessary first step. Although such talks were reportedly not very productive, with each side accusing the other of various INF Treaty violations, the two have at least agreed to continue the dialogue. If such talks fail to make headway, however, the United States should then consider escalating the issue to a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, which can be convened by either party (as provided for in the treaty) to address potential violations. Should such efforts fail, the United States will then need to take stronger measures to bring the Russians back into compliance.

In this respect, the United States should consider adoption of a “dual-track” approach similar to the one used by NATO in the late 1970s and early 1980s to address the Soviet INF challenge in the first place. Under that approach, NATO responded to the growing SS-20 threat by committing publicly to deploying its own INF-class missiles in Europe while simultaneously proposing to the Russians that the two sides negotiate an arms control treaty to prevent a costly and dangerous INF arms race. While this approach certainly produced some tense moments in transatlantic relations, it ultimately succeeded in bringing the Russians to the table, eventually leading to the adoption of the INF Treaty.

Should diplomatic efforts fail, the United States should consider adopting a similar “dual-track” approach to address the latest Russian challenge today. This approach would include coercive elements such as announcing and then making further enhancements to missile defense systems to better enable them to intercept cruise missile strikes. The U.S. Navy has been developing a number of promising new anti-cruise missile systems, such as the Standard Missile 6 and the Hawkeye E-2D airborne radar system. Such technology could potentially be adapted to counter new Russian GLCMs should they be deployed in Europe. A more capable missile defense system would reduce or even negate the military benefits the Russians would expect to achieve through deployment of a GLCM. Additionally (or alternatively), the United States could announce that it will begin developing its own INF-class weapons if the Russians persist in their treaty violations. This could be coupled with statements of intent to deploy those new missiles should the Russians move to deployment of their GLCMs. After all, the Russians can hardly expect the United States to remain fully bound to a treaty that the Russians themselves are freely violating. Such moves would signal to the Russians that they risk triggering a new INF arms race should they elect to proceed with deployment.

U.S. deployment of INF-class weapons is not without risk. If the Russians are determined to abandon the treaty, U.S. deployment might make it easier for them to do so. Therefore, the United States cannot merely engage in tit-for-tat. Instead, the United States must be careful to deploy the right kind of weapon, ideally one that raises the costs for the Russians sufficiently so that they perceive they have more to lose by abandoning the treaty than by coming back into compliance. For example, development and deployment of a ballistic missile with supersonic speed and good terminal-phase maneuverability (perhaps an upgraded Pershing II) could threaten Russian air bases and air defense systems, thereby putting at risk significant investments in new equipment made by the Russians to modernize their military in recent years.

Simultaneously, the United States should offer positive inducements, such as opening talks with the Russians to address specific INF-related concerns and working collaboratively with Moscow to address the mutual threats posed by the growing INF arsenals of other states. Collectively, these measures would provide both the sticks and carrots necessary to induce the Russians to either come back into compliance or agree to INF Treaty amendments satisfactory to both sides. The latter may well necessitate expanding the treaty to bring in additional parties, such as China and India. However, as the history of INF has shown, accomplishing these goals while simultaneously maintaining unity with our NATO allies will not be easy. It will require close consultations with those allies, and even then we could be in for a rough ride for a while until the issues are sorted out.

Paul Schwartz is a senior associate with the Russia and Eurasia 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).

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Paul N. Schwartz