According to the New York Times, «a Trump administration official» has accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). The statement was supported by the Defense Department. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain chimed in, saying «Russia’s deployment of nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the INF treaty is a significant military threat to US forces in Europe and our NATO allies». According to him, Russian President Vladimir Putin was «testing» Trump.
The statement was immediately used by hawks as a pretext for instigating tensions. For instance, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, said he sees little reason for the US to continue adhering to the INF treaty in light of alleged Russia's «violations». He has recommended building up US nuclear forces in Europe, which currently include about 200 bombs that can be delivered by aircraft. The US withdrew land-based nuclear-armed missiles from Europe as part of the INF deal.
The Treaty eliminated all ground-based nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500–1,000 kilometers (310–620 mi) (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 km (620–3,420 mi) (intermediate-range). Signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF deal is accredited with significantly reducing the threat of nuclear confrontation and accelerating the end of the Cold War.
By May 1991, 2,692 missiles were eliminated, followed by 10 years of on-site verification inspections. The document did not cover sea-launched missiles. It stands as the only arms treaty to eliminate an entire class of US and Russian weapons – nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles of intermediate range.
Last year, the State Department reported Russia was in violation of its treaty obligations not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers for such missiles. «The administration is undertaking an extensive review of Russia's ongoing INF treaty violation in order to assess the potential security implications for the United States and its allies and partners», said Mark Toner. The alleged violations had been mentioned in the 2014 and 2015 compliance reports.
No specifics have been released about which exactly Russian weapon is the source of the violation. The only thing it has said is that an unspecified Russian ground-launched cruise missile breaches the agreement. Supposedly, the missile in question is the SSC-8, a ground-based adaptation of the Kalibr missiles that were battle tested in Syria striking targets in Syria, nearly 1,000 miles away, from the Caspian Sea. Despite all the statements with accusations, no compelling evidence of the Russian non-compliance has ever been produced.
It should be noted that even if the missile has been tested, there is no violation. The INF Treaty allows the testing of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) from ground-based platforms if they are fixed. Article VII (para 11) states, «A cruise missile which is not a missile to be used in a ground-based mode shall not be considered to be a GLCM if it is test-launched at a test site from a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launchers».
Russia, in turn, has accused the US of violating the pact. In a nutshell, it cites the following examples of non-compliance:
- The use of target missiles with characteristics similar to those of intermediate and shorter-range ballistic missiles during ballistic missile defense (BMD) tests. With its operational range (1,100 km) Hera qualifies as an intermediate ballistic missile and hence violates Item 1, Article 6 of the INF Treaty.
- The deployment in Romania and Poland of Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launchers capable of firing ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). A US mid-range weapon launched from Poland would require only a short flight time to reach beyond the Urals.
- US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or armed drones such as the MQ-1 Predator, fall under the INF Treaty definition of GLCMs. Moscow claims that their operational ranges (1,100 km) and lack of pilot mean that drones of this type are very similar to shorter-range cruise missiles.
It’s worth noting that the US plans to arm tactical aviation in Europe with modernized B61-12 guided warheads will virtually nullify all the benefits of the INF Treaty from the point of view of Russia’s security. The aircraft could fly from bases in Lithuania, Estonia and Poland to Russia’s largest cities in 15-20 minutes – not that much longer than the flight time of the missiles scuttled by the INF treaty.
The Special Verification Commission (SVC) envisioned by the INF treaty is a forum to confidentially address compliance concerns. It was convened last November for the first time since 2003 to produce no results. The opportunities provided by this venue should not be squandered. It would be much more fruitful to start serious discussions within the framework of the SVC than make public statements not backed up by facts. The accusations obviously pursue the aim of whipping up tensions to spoil the RF-US relationship at the time it has a chance to improve.
The INF treaty is under serious and increasing stress. Failure to resolve the dispute could threaten the agreement and impede further efforts to reduce Russia and US nuclear arsenals in the years ahead. The parties could use the SVC venue to consider additional confidence-building measure and information exchanges that take into account technological and political developments that have occurred recently. The Open Skies Treaty could be used for the purpose. Its observation capabilities could be upgraded. The NATO-Russia Council could serve as another mechanism to address specific security concerns.
The issue has been debated since 2014 but before this statement no one has officially accused Russia of violating the INF. It should be noted that this time the issue was raised immediately after the Flynn’s resignation from the position of national security adviser. Revelations about alleged ‘Russia connections» of the people who belong to the Trump’s team are hitting US media headlines. The statement about the INF violation is made against the background of the White House’s statement stressing the need to «return» Crimea to Ukraine and the ballyhoo raised over the alleged dangerous maneuvering of Russian aircraft in the Black Sea. These are provocative statements doomed to be rejected by Moscow but they pursue a definite purpose. Evidently, some powerful circles in the US have launched a well-orchestrated campaign to prevent the improvement of Russia-US relations.