Russian Foreign Minister has met his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson, twice in New York at the UN General Assembly. The two countries are at odds over an array of issues but the possible violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is a matter of special concern. According to Lavrov, “We have suspicions on at least three fronts that the Americans are creating weapons systems which violate or could violate the treaty obligations.” The minister also emphasized that Moscow wanted the treaty to be in force provided the US observed its provisions.
The treaty, which bans testing, producing, and possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 to 5,500 kilometers, eliminated an entire class of missiles from Europe, and set up an extensive system of verification and compliance.
Lavrov did not elaborate but the issue of Washington’s non-compliance was addressed in the Comment by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the US Department of State's Annual Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. In a nutshell, the Russian grievances include:
- The Aegis Ashore missile defense system that the US has activated in Deveselu, Romania, and plans to install in Poland represents a violation of the treaty. The system uses the naval Mk-41 launching system, which is capable of firing long-range ground launched cruise missile (GLCM). This is a flagrant violation of the treaty, which bans launchers capable of firing intermediate range missiles. Mk-41s deployed in Europe may launch intermediate range cruise missiles deep into Russian territory. A US intermediate range weapon launched from Romania or Poland would require only a short flight time to reach beyond the Urals.
- US unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or armed drones 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.
- The use of target missiles with characteristics similar to those of intermediate and shorter-range ballistic missiles during ballistic missile defense (BMD) tests. With the operational range exceeding 1,000 km they qualify as an intermediate ballistic missile and hence violate Item 1, Article 6 of the INF Treaty. The US Hera target missile, is a good example,
In March, The Heritage Foundation, a think tank close to the Republican Party, published the report titled Time to Withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In late April, Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US forces in the Pacific, said the treaty should be renegotiated.
US media have done its share to whip up anti-Russian sentiments, accusing Moscow of breaching the treaty without any evidence to go upon. For instance, The New York Times reported as far back as February that Russia had secretly deployed a new cruise missile. Citing unnamed administration officials as a source, the article said two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile it called SSC-8 had been located at Russia’s missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country.
The weapon in question is most likely 9M729 - a land version of naval Kalibr long-range cruise missile with a range of around 1,500 to 2,500 km. There is also a speculation in US media that the missile is a land-based version of air-to-surface Kh-101 with a range of over 5,500 km.
In response to US violation of the treaty by installing Aegis Ashore, Russia tested a cruise missile for Iskander missile system in November but its range does not exceed 500 km as stipulated by the treaty, according to Russian officials.
Russia does not have to report where it stations the missiles with a range less than 500 km. It’s not a secret anyway because a battalion of missiles - two batteries of two launchers – is too big to hide from satellites. A missile must be tested before one could say it exceeds a certain range. A flight test is also impossible to hide from contemporary means of surveillance.
There are also details to take into account. For instance, it’s not a violation to test a missile with a range exceeding 500 km. 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».
Actually, with technical means of verification in place, violations are impossible to conceal. Evidence can be presented and differences can be ironed out. But Congress has already taken the first practical steps to make the administration pull out from the agreement. An amendment to the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act on possible withdrawal from the INF Treaty has just been passed by the Senate. Actually, no Congress approval is needed to withdraw, the treaty offers such a provision, but the fact reflects the general mood among American lawmakers. The pressure on the administration is strong and the president cannot disregard it. It shows that the landmark treaty is really in danger.
Moreover, the House and the Senate versions of the 2018 policy bill include the development of a new US mobile ground-based cruise missile (GLCM) with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers the INF Treaty bans.
As one can see, the initiatives to tear up the treaty come for the US, not Russia. Moscow has stated many times it is ready to talk.
If the US were sincere, it would have addressed all the grievances and suspicions regarding the INF treaty within the framework the Special Verification Commission (SVC) created especially for that purpose. Despite mistrust overshadowing the relationship, the parties could have used the SVC venue to consider additional confidence-building measures and information exchanges that take into account technological and political developments that have occurred recently.
The statement by FM Lavrov has made Russia’s position clear. The fact that its concern was made known at the UN General Assembly shows how serious Moscow’s concern is. The issue is important enough for the presidents Trump and Putin to discuss it when they meet during an Asian-Pacific summit scheduled in Danang, Vietnam, to review the progress in their bilateral relations. Discussions at the official level, such as Ryabkov-Shannon meetings, are the right place to talk on how to dissipate mutual suspicions and make progress before the presidents meet. The importance of unofficial contacts at experts’ level should not be underestimated. But it takes two to tango. Russia has stretched a hand expressing the readiness to save the treaty. Now the ball is in the United States’ court.