It has just been announced that Russian and US experts will meet in September to discuss a bilateral agreement. This is an important event against the background of rising tensions over Ukraine.
The U.S. has recently informed its NATO allies about American concerns over a possible breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by Moscow banning all ground-based nuclear-capable missiles with range from 500 to 5,500 km. The concerns are supposed to be triggered by Russian cruise missile tests. The issue became a hot topic in late July when the Obama administration officially concluded in its 2014 compliance report that Russia conducted a test of a ground-launched cruise missile. President Barack Obama gave advance notice of the report’s conclusions in a letter to President Putin delivered on July 28. Secretary of State John Kerry talked the matter over with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov during a phone conversation a day earlier.
Rose Gottemoeller, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, said on August 14 at the U.S. Strategic Command conference on nuclear deterrence that Moscow’s breach of the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty poses «a serious threat to strategic stability». «It is that aspect of a ground-launched cruise missile that is the one about which we have determined is a Russian [treaty] violation», she said. It was the first time a US official acknowledged publicly the specific missile behind the treaty breach announced in late July. Gottemoeller said the U.S. government offered to hold high-level talks with Russia with the goal of rectifying the treaty breach at the time Moscow was notified of the violation via formal diplomatic channels. Last month, Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, introduced legislation directed at Russia for its INF treaty breach. The legislation would seek to impose penalties for the alleged violation.
The fact that the accusations have become public domain makes one ponder. Russia and the US have a rich experience of tackling security issues. In practice arms-control related controversial issues are usually discussed during the closed-door meeting of working groups but this time it reached the presidential level.
The R-500-K Iskander is a new short-range, nuclear-capable cruise missile that the Russian government has said it plans to deploy near NATO member countries in response to U.S. missile defense plans. The US insists the range exceeds the lower limit of the INF Treaty. It never said by how much or offered any proof. The INF treaty prohibits both signatories from possessing, producing or flight-testing ground-launched cruise missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
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It would be propitious to note that Russia has emphasized many times that the US is in clear violation of the Treaty as it uses missiles to serve as targets in testing its BMD systems, specifically - the first and second stages of the U.S. Minuteman-II that have a range of over 1,000 km (1,200 km for HERA; 2,000 km for LRALT; and up to 1,100 km for MRT missiles). The elements of their missile defense system are regularly tested at the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific. The target missiles used during these tests are equipped with engines from intermediate-range missiles. Article VI of the INF treaty states that neither party shall «produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missiles or produce any stages of such missiles or any launchers of such missiles». Another violation of the Treaty by the US is testing unmanned combat aerial vehicles, which also technically qualify as cruise missiles, as defined by the Treaty.
The Russian Foreign Ministry complained about this back in January 2001, and again in August 2010, but met with no response from Washington.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement on July 30, 2014 to clarify its stand on the issue. It says the US accusations have failed to be supported by evidence. It would be expedient to deal with the problems using «mouthpiece diplomacy». The statement lists as Treaty violations the use of target-missiles, which have similar characteristics to intermediate-range missiles, for the tests of missile defence interceptors, the production of armed drones and the use of Mk-41 launchers deployed in Poland and Romania within the framework of global missile defense deployment. It adds, «We raised these concerns with the United States many times. Washington does not want to listen to us. In this issue, as well as other debatable ones, they only listen to themselves. However, we do not lose hope and hope to receive explanations from the United States regarding the nature of the questions asked by Russia, as well as a confirmation of their readiness to work jointly to ensure of the Treaty regime and to increase its viability».
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In recent years, Russia has raised the possibility of withdrawing from the INF. It has been suggested that the proposed U.S. deployment of strategic anti-ballistic missile systems in Europe might trigger a Russian withdrawal from the agreement. The Russian officials have warned the missiles would be deployed against future U.S. missile defense sites in case NATO proceeds with the plans to boost the capabilities of European BMD. Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the issue as far back in his 2007 Munich address. In 2013, Sergey Ivanov, the presidential chief of staff, said of the treaty: «We are fulfilling it, but it can't last forever.» Some Russian experts have said recently that the Russian Federation may be on the point of pulling out of the Treaty. On August 14, the head of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, has not ruled out the possibility that Russia could withdraw from the INF. «Russia is not planning a series of denunciations of international agreements but it could exit those which no longer meet its national interests, those such as the INF Treaty», Pushkov wrote on Twitter.
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Actually the Treaty is more advantageous for the US than Russia. All the provisions fulfilled by May 1991, Russia and the USA remain the world’s only countries that imposed restrictions on themselves in the regard of short - and medium-range missiles. Unlike the United States, Russia has several nuclear states near its borders (China, India, Pakistan and probably Iran and North Korea) in possession of medium-range missiles that can potentially strike Russian territory. The Treaty does not prohibit development of short and medium range missiles. Russia and the US both continued research in this area. But, unlike Russia, the US is doing it together with allies. France and the UK are not parties to the agreement and they implement their own missile programs.
A lukewarm conflict between Russia and the US has been drawing on for a number of years with mutual accusations at experts’ level. Minor treaty violations are a routine matter to be tackled by working groups. It is usually solved without any media attention, but tensions hiked over Ukraine have caused the matter to spill into the open and get blown out of proportion. The ballyhoo raised in public about the alleged Russia’s violations of the Treaty leads to the conclusion that the US wants to hype up the tensions as the stand-off over Ukraine continues to exacerbate. It’s also part of campaign aimed at to getting public accustomed to blaming Russia. There may be one more reason - the US is nudging Russia out of the INF Treaty to free hands for further augmentation of its military presence in Europe, including expanding its BMD in Europe. Creating a new nuke bogey would make Europeans more dependent on US protection. The September talks will decide the fate of the unique historic Treaty and show if the above mentioned conjectures hold water.