How to Respond to Russian Violations of the INF Treaty


According to the State Department, Russia has fired a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) banned by the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or INF. This is new territory—clearly offensive rearmament in direct violation of a treaty in modern Russia. Some commentators have argued that the United States should “act like Reagan” by only patiently working to cajole Russia back onto the right path and continuing to cut U.S. weapons. The INF was Ronald’s Reagan’s most important arms control treaty and as such recalling his record is fine, and proper. But it ought to be recalled, in full. Reagan indeed negotiated a further arms control agreement with Moscow after INF, and before it, the Soviets had cheated on any number of nuclear commitments. But Reagan’s record does not include only arms reductions. It also included a large increase in the number of intermediate-range weapons the United States had in Europe in a successful attempt to get Moscow’s attention that culminated in sweeping, verifiable elimination of nuclear danger. It did not rest on the perceived benefits of pursuing a policy of nuclear reductions independent of all other factors relevant to American national security, and it took as its touchstone the idea that the Soviets were unlikely to take steps to reduce nuclear arms unless the United States signaled its willingness to meet Russian nuclear threat-mongering and missiles in Europe with decisive action to support our allies.

The brilliance of INF was not just that it reduced nuclear weapons. It did far more than that. It was the only agreement to eliminate and forever ban, everywhere, any U.S. or Russian nuclear cruise or ballistic missile launched from land and capable of a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. There were to be no intermediate- and shorter-range missiles, even conventional ones, at all after the systems were destroyed. The intermediate agreement was the predicate for all other strategic arms control treaties that followed it.

The return of a Russian INF missile to Europe or Asia resets arms control to 1987. And today, we have far less verification when it matters more. The New START treaty did not contain important INF precedents and even eliminated much of the necessary verification contained in START I. It was supposed to be a step toward a new, lower limit in another treaty. That prospect is dim: Russia has suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE) and is not in compliance with INF. And, at lower nuclear numbers, cheating has a larger impact. That was why the INF had to contain such extensive verification measures while INF missiles were being eliminated. Its provisions were necessary because it completely banned, rather than merely reduced, INF missiles.

The ingenuity of the pact was threefold: its requirement for continuous, on-site “boots on the ground” monitoring of final assembly areas for INF missiles; its requirement that neither party interfere with the other’s national technical means of monitoring declared items, continuing a precedent set in the SALT accord; and on-site inspections to confirm data declarations and notifications. Nothing had ever gone that far and it was necessary for the even bigger START I treaty, which depended on the continuous monitoring precedent established under INF. The treaty was effective. By 1991, the United States reached the requisite confidence to be able to state that all declared systems, launchers, and support equipment had been eliminated. Per the treaty, inspections and reporting continued until 2001, whereupon they ceased.

The full Reagan position that led to the INF was premised on deploying more nuclear weapons, first, and negotiating reductions with Moscow, second. Reagan launched a program to develop a longer-range version of the Pershing IA missile, the Pershing II, offering to Russia to terminate the program if Russia could agree to reduce and eventually to ban its SS-20 missiles. He then proceeded to deploy Pershing II while still negotiating what became the INF. The “dual-track” had a paradoxical result: the most lop-sided arms control agreement in history. Under INF, the Soviets removed four warheads from deployment to every American one and eliminated almost twice as many missiles as did the United States.

According to non-governmental groups like the Ploughshares Fund and the Arms Control Association, the lesson to take from Reagan is to keep reducing as an incentive to bring Moscow along, whether with respect to treaty compliance or disarmament. While now ignoring the reset button, they argue against pressing pause. Leaving aside the dual track, they are correct: Indeed, in 1988, when then-Senator Steve Symms (R-ID) proposed that Reagan certify complete Soviet compliance with all other arms control commitments before bringing INF into force, the Senate voted him down because the Reagan administration opposed him.

But that was at the start of the process. We now have 26 years observing and understanding Russian arms control cheating, and because of Reagan’s success, the numbers of nuclear weapons, their delivery vehicles and launchers, are significantly lower than they were when we first caught sight of the SS-20. In the history of these agreements, this new Russian offensive weapon is a grave sign of caution, if not pause, in Moscow. But our current treaty-provided verification capabilities and our own national priority on ensuring we can independently confirm Russian compliance are not up to the task. Speculation on how the United States knows Russia is cheating is not releasable, and highlights a key problem—when the only means you have of knowing if the other party is in violation are so sensitive they cannot be shared, and you have no available treaty-generated method for sharing specific noncompliance information, all you can do is state the fact of violation but either appear to, or worse still, act as if the limit still matters. And, given the already low numbers (no numbers, for INF, until now), any Russian cheating is automatically more serious, and any one INF-banned missile is that much more serious because under the treaty there are to be none. Temporizing over this point damages the credibility and sustainability of the very idea of arms control, that once noncompliance is detected, timely response is required to deny the violator any benefit.

Going lower is, however, the specific policy of the Obama administration. In fact, at the very low levels he advertised in a speech in Berlin last summer, it was surprising that he made no hint at greater verification than he had achieved to date nor gave any inkling that he understood what was unfolding in Russia, even though his own State Department’s Compliance Report notes that the issue was raised with Russia several times in 2013.

Cancelling the INF is not in our interest, at present, simply because the only party that would benefit is the one who has a banned weapon. That calculation could change, and there is no reason not to debate why it should not: the substance and purpose of the INF relates to the prevention of major war. If you do not have effective arms control or a competing system, you are not in a good position to bargain with Moscow. That was what Reagan taught us.

Public reports link Moscow’s new, INF-banned GLCM to the Iskander missile system, a road-mobile missile. This supposedly conventional-only missile could theoretically provide significant cover for covert deployment of a nuclear-armed copy, even as a cruise weapon, if it is true that Moscow will undertake that deployment. There are no INF inspections to help us, in this regard. Indeed, INF negotiators thought about exempting conventionally armed INF-range weapons, but could not design a way to distinguish purely conventional weapons from nearly identical, banned nuclear arms, once deployed. If it is true that this will be the Russian maskirovka tactic for its GLCM, then any judgments about how many such weapons exist and where they are requires information not available to the public. However, the military significance of the banned cruise missile is a policy judgment that can now be debated openly.

Those who chided Republicans for forcing Russian INF noncompliance to the fore, now finding they were too quick to criticize, have a new talking point: it is not a threat or an immediate one. Also, they point to past noncompliance cases, most prominently the Soviet radar at Krasnoyarsk and resulting ABM treaty violation, as proof that we can regain compliance. But this reasoning is infirm. It is a fair bet the Soviets and the Russians wanted the ABM treaty more than the United States; it is wholly unclear whether they want the INF at all. Based on the lack of strategy evident in calling out Russian INF noncompliance in the midst of a war in Ukraine, one could even imply that we do not, either, that it is just another bit of tit-for-tat, a tool in the kit to ratchet the pressure upward. It may do that, but it will not improve our position if there is no strategy apart from sending a letter to Putin. Nor should we hint that Russian withdrawal from Ukraine would relieve Russia of its violation. As of today, Russia is benefiting from noncompliance and destabilizing Ukraine, and we are clearly not obtaining any advantage.

The United States has not violated the INF. Citation of Moscow’s agitprop to the contrary in some vainglorious attempt to say all sinners are equal is neither diplomatically helpful to the United States nor legally accurate. What is wrong is just wrong, and Russia is dead wrong on this score. Moreover, if Russia really had a serious concern that the United States was violating the treaty, it could have asked to convene a meeting of the INF’s Special Verification Commission to challenge US systems. Given Moscow’s noncompliance, it is obvious why the Russians did not want a day in court.

The same folks who praise Reagan today also commonly state that nuclear weapons are useless and, in particular, that the remaining gravity bombs the United States deploys in Europe under NATO nuclear sharing should be withdrawn. At the very low levels suggested by Obama, that might happen. Inconveniently for him, and for the anti-nuclear lobby, there is more than a residual frisson after Russian INF noncompliance was made public in Europe. Allies have opinions and in the coming weeks will weigh in with them, even as they see Russia dismember Ukraine.

What would Reagan have done? Who knows. But what Obama is doing is not yet sufficient.


Thomas C. Moore is Senior Fellow with the Lugar Center, and was for a decade the Republican Professional Staff Member for arms control on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. These views are entirely his own.


Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream