Calling foul: The U.S. response to Russia’s violation of a nuclear arms treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty found its way to the headlines last week. The U.S. State Department issued a report stating that Russia continues to be in violation of the treaty, and an article on possible U.S. military responses sparked angst in Moscow. 

Until fairly recently, the INF treaty had for a long time been of interest only to arms control junkies. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty back in December 1987. It banned all U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. It entered into force in June 1988. Three years later, the two countries had destroyed some 2,600 missiles—the first time ever that an entire class of nuclear arms had been eliminated.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan took on the Soviet INF treaty obligations, including the ban on testing or producing INF missiles in the future. Last July, Washington disclosed that Russia had violated its obligation under the treaty “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). On June 5, the State Department said that Russia remains in violation. 

A new Russian intermediate-range GLCM would lack the range to pose a direct threat to the United States, except perhaps part of Alaska. But it could directly threaten a host of American allies—including NATO members in Europe and Japan and South Korea—as well as other countries, such as China.

Russian officials assert the U.S. government has provided no details to back up its charge and claim it is the United States that is in violation of the treaty. U.S. officials say they have provided Russia sufficient information to identify the violation, but they have released few details publicly. Washington’s concern about making details public and sharing too much with the Russians likely reflects concern about “sources and methods”—providing too much information could reveal how the U.S. intelligence community discovered the violation and risk losing access to such information in the future. 

(Disclaimer: I have no independent basis on which to judge the U.S. charge but believe there is something to it. This is in part because the finding of a violation was not something that the Obama administration sought; had there been any ambiguity or doubt about the evidence, it would have held off on reaching its determination.)

U.S. officials have said that, if Moscow does not correct the problem and come back into compliance with the INF Treaty, they will ensure that Russia gains no significant military advantage from the violation. A range of options are being considered, some which would be consistent with the treaty and others which would require withdrawal. The options include defensive measures to defeat the Russian GLCM as well as “counterforce” capabilities that would presumably allow the cruise missiles to be attacked before launch. 

A June 4 Associated Press story noted that one counterforce option could entail deployment of new U.S. land-based missiles in Europe. That got noticed in Moscow. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Moscow “placed much attention” on the report. Colonel General Victor Zavarzin, a member of the Russian federal assembly’s defense committee, warned “if the Americans indeed deploy their ground-based nuclear missiles in Europe, in this case we will face the necessity of retaliating.”

It comes as no surprise that the possibility of U.S. INF missiles in Europe provoked concern in Moscow. The Soviets really did not like the U.S. GLCMs and Pershing II ballistic missiles deployed in Europe in the 1980s, a key factor in getting Moscow to change its negotiating stance and ultimately accept a treaty banning all INF missiles. The thought that the Pentagon might dream up a Pershing III makes the Russian Ministry of Defense nervous—and hopefully reminds the Kremlin of why it saw value in the INF Treaty in the first place. 

But that is unlikely to be the response. Building a new INF missile would be expensive. More importantly, it is not clear that European allies would be eager to accept deployment of such a missile on their territory. While deployment of U.S. missiles in Europe did eventually go forward 30 years ago, it was far from certain. (An INF missile in the continental United States could not reach Russian territory; even if deployed in Alaska, it could not hold at risk much in Russia of interest.)

The Pentagon’s response

No Defense Department response would be necessary if Russia came back into compliance with the treaty. Unfortunately, in the current political atmosphere between Washington and Moscow, it is difficult to imagine how that might happen.

Moreover, over the past eight years, senior Russian officials—including President Putin himself—have called into question Russia’s continued adherence to the treaty. They have expressed concern that other countries, not bound by the treaty, are building INF missiles. Of course, given Moscow’s enormous stockpile of strategic and other nuclear weapons, it’s hard to think of a legitimate reason for the Kremlin to build an INF missile of its own. But, as we have seen with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Kremlin has a different way of looking at things.