Don’t Engage Russia on the INF Treaty Yet

August 14, 2014

U.S. accusations that Russia is in violation of the 26-year-old Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) have left the treaty hanging by a thread. Some analysts argue that the United States should take the opportunity to abandon the INF Treaty, while others recommend doubling down on it. But missing from much of the analysis is an understanding of how and why Russia has responded to the U.S. allegations. What lies behind Moscow’s stance and what does it mean for the U.S. response?

The discussion around the 1987 INF Treaty, and its link to ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Europe, has become an effective mechanism to consolidate Russian public opinion behind the idea that Russia is under siege from the West. Russia’s reaction toward Washington’s allegations that Moscow violated the INF Treaty was immediate and expectedly negative. It serves as a classic illustration of the current rhetorical tools and narratives that the Russian government uses to perpetuate the perception of aggressive anti-Russian U.S. policies and maintain President Vladimir Putin’s high ratings.

The INF Treaty became a hot topic in late July when the Obama administration officially concluded in its 2014 compliance report that Russia violated the INF Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile banned under the treaty. President Barack Obama gave advance notice of the report’s conclusions in a letter to Putin delivered by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on July 28. Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed similar information to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, during a phone conversation a day earlier.

In its response to the U.S. allegations, Russia employed a well-tested tactic: denial and vehement polemical retaliation. Moscow’s rhetorical technique is familiar to analysts following the Ukraine crisis, where Russia has persistently denied its obvious involvement and support for the Ukrainian separatists. Although shocking, the effectiveness of this rhetoric on the Russian population is unquestionable. For example, a recent survey, conducted by a Moscow-based polling research organization the Levada Center, showed that 64% of Russians believe that the conflict in southeastern Ukraine is a result of Western interference.

In the case of the INF Treaty, the Kremlin’s rhetorical response consisted of familiar quick finger pointing back at the accusing party. As soon as the news of the U.S. report started to spread, the Kremlin-controlled media released a series of stories, complementing the official government position, which condemned the United States for having violated the INF Treaty by using missiles banned under the treaty as targets in BMD tests.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta, one of the most widely circulated Russian newspapers, swiftly published an article that meticulously outlined Moscow’s two-stage approach to deal with the INF Treaty allegations. First, the article established Russia’s innocence, or at the very least its status as minor transgressor compared to the major one, the United States. The article quoted the former chief of staff of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, Colonel-General Viktor Esin, who stated, “The most important thing is that the United States violates the Treaty more.” Esin explained that the Pentagon uses missiles in violation of the INF Treaty to serve as targets in testing its BMD. He referred specifically to the use of the first and second stage of the U.S. Minuteman-II missile. The same article dismissed in passing the Russian violations of the INF Treaty by stating that the case must be investigated more meticulously. Some Russian analysts, including Igor Korotchenko, have gone even further stating, “Russia has never violated the INF Treaty.”

If this argument is insufficient to prove to the Russian readers the innocence of their leadership, as a second step, the article continued, presenting the familiarly flawed Russian version of the purpose of the U.S.-led BMD system being deployed in Europe, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). The article asserted that the EPAA is being constructed to defend against Russia’s missiles, contrary to U.S. claims. Following this logic, Russia is the real victim.

Domestically, establishing that BMD is directed against Russia is a powerful and dangerous platform that unleashes all sorts of culpability-free opportunities for the aggressive anti-Western Kremlin. One of the more disturbing routes that Russia is signaling it may take is to withdraw from the INF Treaty as this would enable Russia to deploy intermediate-range missiles that could strike BMD facilities in Europe. Such missiles, currently banned under the INF Treaty, would help Russia protect itself from the alleged emerging danger. As the former chief of the Russian general staff, Army General Yury Baluyevsky, stated, “I remain convinced that the INF Treaty is harmful for us.” Baluyevsky was advocating this position back in 2007, before becoming the chief of Russia’s general staff. Given the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-Russian ties, Baluyevsky’s view may gain more popularity.

In the presence of such diametrically opposed views as to which party has violated the INF Treaty and the purpose of BMD, the general reader could easily get confused. One thing at least is certain, in the case of BMD, Russia’s allegations are overblown, and Russia is fully aware of that.

A more detailed assessment of Russia’s accusations over the BMD system in Europe and its capabilities reveals that missile defense does not present a threat to Russia as the Kremlin so insistently claims. Russia’s major complaint against the EPAA has been that, in case of a conflict, the BMD system would be able to engage Russia’s large arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warheads that can reach the United States. The EPAA would hence, compromise Russia’s nuclear deterrent and would disrupt the existing U.S.-Russian balance of power, in which neither side resorts to using their strategic weapons because of fear of massive retaliation. Under these circumstances, each side may be prompted to launch nuclear missiles first to ensure an advantage during a crisis. The initially planned version of the EPAA would have included an upgrade by 2020, which would have enabled the system to engage a very small fraction of Russia’s ICBMs. In March 2013, however, the Obama administration cancelled the planned upgrade, the EPAA’s Phase Four. The cancellation effectively eliminated the plan to produce and deploy SM-3 Block IIB interceptors. Phase Four’s cancellation should have eased Russia’s concerns because the EPAA would not have any capability to intercept Russia’s ICBMs. The U.S. BMD in Europe would be capable of intercepting only intermediate-range ballistic missiles, which Russia has not deployed and is barred from deploying by the INF Treaty.

Even if we entertain the idea that Phase Four could be revived — a proposition that both NATO senior staff and U.S. officials find extremely unlikely — Russia still has a large number of strategic missiles that guarantee Russia’s security. As of March of this year, Russia reported in its New START declaration that it had 1,512 deployed strategic warheads and 498 deployed ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. Moreover, Moscow’s ballistic missiles employ countermeasures such as decoys and chaff, a highly effective and inexpensive instrument that can heavily impair the ability of missile defense systems to identify the actual flying warhead. For these and many other reasons, to Russia, missile defense is not purely an issue in and of itself, but rather a symbol and instrument of broader political considerations of government legitimacy and geopolitical status.

In the context of Russia’s increasing isolation due to its aggression in Ukraine, the INF Treaty and the BMD debates conveniently fit into the narrative of a besieged fortress of Russia that needs a strong leader and a powerful military to defend her, even at the expense of pensions, taxes and economic growth. Kudos to the Russian spin doctors who have managed to so meticulously craft this narrative and make yet another Russian transgression of international commitments a boost for Putin’s popularity.

What should the United States do? The best option for the U.S. government is to continue to abide by the INF Treaty, be patient and wait for more favorable conditions, in which a dialogue with Russia on its treaty violations is possible. Considering how highly useful the debates around the INF Treaty and BMD are for the Kremlin domestically, it is unlikely that Russia will immediately agree to follow America’s guidance and fall back into compliance with the INF Treaty. Moreover, a candid discussion on INF Treaty violations is unlikely to happen in the midst of the current escalating confrontation between Russia and the West. Engagement on the INF Treaty could be conducted only in a period of improved relations, when channels of communication are restored, and when the parties have reached a solution to the Ukrainian crisis that does not involve imposing new sanctions on each other every week.

If the United States withdraws from the treaty now because of Russia’s missile test, this would only play in Moscow’s favor. Free from its INF Treaty obligations, Russia may deploy cruise missiles along its borders with Europe and Asia, raising tensions in the region. A U.S. withdrawal would also serve as another arrow in Moscow’s quiver showing that the United States, not Russia, is the wrecker of international norms. Let’s hope that the cornerstone INF Treaty will not fall victim to Russia’s flawed rhetoric and will survive the currently raging storm in Moscow’s relations with the West.


Bilyana Lilly is author of the forthcoming book, Russian Foreign Policy toward Missile Defense: Actors, Motivations, and Influence (Lexington Books August 2014). Follow her on Twitter: @BilyanLilly.