The rift between the US and the group of nations belonging to what is known as the “collective West” (as illustrated by the scandalous G7 summit in Canada) — added to the growing divisions within NATO and the EU, the tense relations between the West and Russia, the possibility of a war between Israel and Iran and those potential repercussions, as well as a host of other hot-button topics — are all making the headlines in the media, pushing issues of real fundamental importance, such as the erosion of arms-control policies, into the shadows. Significant dangers loom down that road. Something needs to be done. Time is running out and the entire system could soon unravel. If an unfettered arms race starts, all the problems seen as top priorities today will fade into insignificance. It’s high time to sound some alarm bells.
It’s only natural to raise this issue in June — the month the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) celebrates the 30th anniversary of its passing. This agreement banned all US and Russian ground-based nuclear and conventional missiles, as well as their launchers, with ranges of 500–1,000 km or 310–620 mi (short-range) and 1,000–5,500 km or 620–3,420 mi (intermediate-range). This was the first time in history that an entire class of weapons was done away with and a new framework for verifying compliance was established.
The US and Russia are each accusing the other of being in violation. As a result, the treaty, which was viewed in the 1980s as a great achievement that pulled the world back from the abyss of nuclear war, is now teetering on the brink of collapse. Just imagine the scope and seriousness of the problem — no arms-control talks between the two leading nuclear powers have taken place for eight years now! The other pillar of the arms-control regime, the New Start, has been disparaged by the US administration with only three years left before it expires. The American plans for nuclear modernization may ultimately bury whatever is left of the arms-control regime — a problem that deserves far more attention than it has gotten.
The US accusations mainly boil down to alleged testing by Russia of a cruise missile fired from Iskander launching pads with a range that is in violation of the treaty’s provisions. Moscow rejects this claim. So has it been substantiated or not? One must be impartial but the US never submitted any evidence, at least nothing that was available in open sources to support its statements.
For its part, Russia has asserted on a number of occasions that the US has breached the document by using target missiles to test its BMD systems, which include the first and second stages of the US Minuteman II, which has a range exceeding 1,000 km. The targets are powered by 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.” Testing unmanned combat aerial vehicles, which technically qualify as cruise missiles, is also a violation The Mk-41 launchers used by the Aegis Ashore BMD system stationed in Romania can fire Tomahawk medium-range missiles, as it is done when the Mk-41 is used by naval vessels. This is clearly a violation. There is no way to deny it. Moscow has never been offered any serious explanation of this, except the assurances that once on land, the launchers are transformed into something quite different from what they are when installed on ships! In other words, the US has nothing to say. Twenty-four missiles launched from Romania is not a huge number, but there will be more once another Aegis Ashore has been deployed somewhere in Poland in 2020. It’s not the numbers that matter. A violation by the US has taken place and this fact is undeniable.
The 2018 NDAA authorizes the development of intermediate-range ground-based missiles that are banned by the treaty. In February, a bipartisan group of lawmakers submitted the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Preservation Act to force Moscow to take steps that they believe would meet the treaty’s provisions. The bill says that among other things the New START should not be extended and the Open Skies Treaty is to be suspended until Moscow bows to the US demands. This idea to link one agreement to the other is fundamentally wrong. This approach threatens the entire arms-control regime, or whatever remains of it.
Compliance with the INF is also a European problem. American NATO allies would become targets for Russia’s retaliatory strikes should that agreement no longer be binding. So far, no European member of the alliance has asked the US to deploy intermediate-range weapons on its soil. Of course, US influence in Europe would be greatly expanded if America used the Russian nuclear bogeyman as an excuse to provide US allies with means of deterrence they could depend on. That would make Europeans much more docile about trade tariffs and other issues that so divide the parties, as the recent G7 summit in Canada has shown. It is true that Russia and the US have problems with the treaty. The attempts to resolve those differences within the framework of the Special Verification Commission (SVC) have so far failed. The meeting in December was reduced to accusations and denials. But if there is a will, there is a way. On-the-spot inspections conducted on short notice would contribute greatly to strengthening confidence-building measures. For instance, Russian inspection teams could see with their own eyes which missiles, the Standards-3 or the Tomahawk, are installed on Mk-41 Aegis Ashore launchers in Romania or Poland. If satellite-transmitted data shows something fishy there, inspections teams should have the right to rush in without prior warning to dispel suspicions.
The Mk-41 launchers’ tubes could be modified to make it impossible to install Tomahawks. This could be easily verified by on-the-spot inspections. An agreement on telemetry data exchange would be another step to allay concerns. Working groups could prepare detailed proposals.
In their dozens of years of cooperating on arms control Russia and the US have gained extensive experience with verification measures. One does not have to be an expert in the field to realize that the problems related to compliance with the INF Treaty have solutions. There is no deadlock but the environment is not conducive to moving forward. Neither the US Congress nor the military is interested in making progress to preserve an agreement that so much effort was expended to achieve. The same applies to the New START. Hopes for its extension in 2021 seem to be fading, but the treaty can and should be preserved, otherwise there will be no curbs on the strategic nuclear-arms race. This will have dire consequences. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?
What both sides need is a no-holds barred strategic dialog, and the INF Treaty needs to be a part of that. There are many layers of mistrust clouding the relationship, but urgent arms-control issues must be addressed immediately, no matter what else is happening in the world or in other aspects of that bilateral relationship. The two countries’ chiefs of staff meet with each other regularly — this is a basis for an expanded dialog. It could be supplemented with contacts between legislative bodies and other experts. BMD and conventional long-range weapons could be included in future security talks. It’s a pity this issue did not receive its due attention at the NATO-Russia Council meeting on May 31.
This article is not intended to be about the woeful plight of the Russia-US relationship or the problems that cloud it. It’s not about determining who’s right and who’s wrong but rather an attempt to spotlight the urgency of tackling this issue that is of vital importance for all. A range of options and angles should be explored to find a resolution to the most serious crisis in the 55-year history of nuclear arms control since the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. We find ourselves at a fork in the road, and the time left to make a final choice is running out.
In the 1980s, the two nuclear superpowers achieved great progress because intermediate-range missiles, strategic offensive weapons, and space weapons were addressed as separate issues. As a result, the INF Treaty and START I came to fruition and the weaponization of space (Star Wars) was avoided. Russia and the US could take advantage of this experience today by isolating the issues of Syria, the Iran deal, the Skripal case, the alleged election meddling, and all the other controversial concerns — no matter how hot-button — from the INF and New START talks, which are being conducted separately. They should take the bull by the horns and do the right thing — save the world from nuclear devastation.