The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – one of the most significant arms-reduction accomplishments of the Cold War – marked its thirtieth anniversary on December 8. It was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 to ban US and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 and 3,300 miles). Some 2,700 missiles and their launchers have been destroyed. The landmark treaty has served well to prevent a nuclear arms race but today it is the weakest link in the system of nuclear arms control and its future is uncertain.
The United States is set to impose new sanctions against Russia over Moscow's alleged violation of the INF Treaty. The US Commerce Department will introduce punitive measure against Russian companies that have provided technology to help develop a new weapon. The December 8 announcement made by the State Department was the first of its sort by President Donald Trump's administration.
The decision is taken after a lengthy review undertaken by the National Security Council and made public ahead of a meeting of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), the implementing body for the treaty, to bring together US and Russian officials and experts. Past meetings to discuss controversial issues have failed to accomplish results. The missile in question is the so-called Novator 9M729 (SSC-8). Washington alleges the missile has already been deployed in at least two Russian regions.
In addition to the new sanctions, the Defense Department will begin research and development on a new nuclear cruise missile. The fiscal 2018 defense policy bill is authorizing $58 million to develop a new INF-busting road-mobile cruise missile capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads. It should be noted that it would cost billions of dollars and take years to field. One can hardly imagine a US ally in Europe or Asia, agreeing to deploy such a weapon on its territory.
Even more provocatively, in the same budget, Congress has directed the Defense Department to report on the cost to convert existing missile systems, such as the missile-defense interceptor SM-3 currently deployed in Romania, into medium-range nuclear systems. This is a validation of Russia’s concern that the ground-based missile defense systems being deployed in Europe can be used for intermediate range offensive missiles. The bill is also calling on the president to submit to Congress a plan to impose US sanctions on Russians responsible for “ordering or facilitating non-compliance” with the treaty.
The United States first formally accused Russia of developing a missile in violation of the INF back in 2014, and has repeated the accusations several times since then. Earlier this year, Washington said the missile was operational and had been deployed.
Moscow has denied the accusations as groundless and insisted it is committed to the INF pact. Russia said on Dec. 9 it was fully committed to a Cold War-era agreement.
Moscow has its own list of complaints over the US non-compliance. The list includes the drones that can deliver ordnance at ranges between 500 and 5,500 km, and target missiles used for ballistic missile defense (BMD) tests, which have a range exceeding the limits imposed by the treaty and can be potentially weaponized. US drones are cruise missiles because they fall inside the definition of cruise missiles in treaty Article II, paragraph 2: “an unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path.”
Russia’s special concern is the use of Mk-41 VLS launcher as an element of the AEGIS Ashore missile defense system operational in Romania and to be deployed in Poland next year. A ship-borne version is designed to fire both Tomahawk cruise missiles and SM-3 interceptors. It gives the US the ability to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles from land. The treaty bans the deployment in Europe of the ground-based intermediate range capable launchers.
It’s worth noting that some elected officials in the United States are setting the stage for withdrawal from the treaty. In July, Senator Tom Cotton, who is a member of the Armed Services Committee, said the US should sidestep the accord. In his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., the senator urged the administration to transfer American missile technologies to allies, particularly Poland, to help develop their own mid-range missiles, despite the fact that only the US and Russia are signatories to the INF Treaty. “The time is coming to consider whether the US should stay in the INF treaty, even if Russia came back into compliance,” he said at the time. Earlier in 2017, the US government offered to help its South Korean counterparts develop new longer-range ballistic missiles that American forces would themselves be unable to employ.
Much has been said about the problems related to the INF Treaty. True, there are problems that should be addressed and the SVC is the right forum to do so. With the treaty torn up, the prospects for a strategic offensive arms treaty after the New START expires in 2021 become blurred. The INF and the New START are the only arms control treaties remaining in force to limit US and Russia’s nuclear forces. Without them, an arms race becomes inevitable. Instead of engaging in futile exchanges of accusations, the parties should jointly work out additional verification measures to eliminate mutual suspicions. That’s what should be done. The US states its goal is to have the treaty in force but it looks like it wants it on its own terms, giving it an exclusive right to define what meets the treaty’s provisions and what does not. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that the statement about imposing the INF-related sanctions on Russia came before the SVC talks started?
This is an act of intimidation and outright pressure unacceptable for Moscow and the State Department is aware of it. The Russia’s reaction is quite predictable. At the October 2017 Valdai Club meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin said: "If someone… wishes to withdraw from the treaty, for example, our American partners, our response would be… immediate and reciprocal." The use of ultimatums is a wrong language to speak with Moscow and Washington knows it well.
Then the imposition of sanctions is nothing but a provocative act, pursuing the goal of shifting the blame on Russia for something the US wants to be done – dumping the treaty. A unilateral withdrawal would not be supported internationally and Washington will face problems with allies. But if the US succeeded in creating the image of a victim, which has to do something about the Russia’s “nefarious” plans, it would eat the cake and have it. This is “a pot calling the kettle black” policy. Otherwise, the announcement of sanctions would not precede the talks.