(W)Archives: Back to the Future with INF (and SRINF)


At a summit meeting in Washington, DC on December 8, 1987, General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan signed the historic Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that eliminated an entire class of missiles. A key sticking point in the negotiations had been the U.S. demand that Russia eliminate not only all of its SS-20 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs), wherever located, but also all of its Short-Range INF systems (SRINF) with a range of 500 kilometers (300 miles) or more. The Soviets resisted this demand until April 14, 1987 when Gorbachev told U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz that he agreed to the “global double zero level” on INF and SRINF.

Thanks to the National Security Archives, a transcript of that Gorbachev-Shultz discussion is available to us. It shows the Secretary seemingly caught off-guard by Gorbachev’s sudden acceptance of the U.S. position. It was a remarkable development but, then, Gorbachev was always full of surprises. I spent much of the 1980s studying Soviet nuclear missiles and for a time I was an adviser on the U.S. delegation negotiating the INF Treaty. It was the height of the Cold War and also the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union—either way, I remember it as an exciting time to be working on these issues.

With Gorbachev’s offer, the major impediment to an agreement was eliminated and the two sides progressed rapidly toward signature. The Treaty ultimately banned the flight testing and deployment of all U.S. and Soviet ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

For years the INF Treaty stood as one of the major accomplishments of arms control and modern international security. During some of those years I served as Deputy Director of the Arms Control Intelligence Staff (ACIS) at CIA and then Deputy Director of the Weapons Intelligence and Non-Proliferation Center (WINPAC). My responsibilities included monitoring the Treaty and providing intelligence information that gave the U.S. confidence that Russia—which had assumed the Soviet Union’s responsibilities under the Treaty—was living up to its obligations.

Now that I have moved on to my next career, it seems to an outside observer that the INF regime may be crumbling. Indeed, the treaty is back in the news in an unpleasant way. The U.S. Department of State has released its annual unclassified Compliance Report and it states that “the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty.”Apparently the issue has been festering for a year now without a satisfactory resolution. However, according to the New York Times, U.S. officials have told our allies that the violation involved the flight testing of a “new ground-launched cruise missile” that had not yet been deployed.

The U.S. Government has said little publicly about the nature of the INF violation or named the system involved. Most press articles and blogs, however, speculate that the missile in question is the Iskander-K/R-500 missile, which is a cruise missile variant of a short range ballistic missile (SRBM), the Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone). Others have suggest that the missile in question is not the Iskander-K cruise missile system, which may already be undergoing deployment, but rather something related to the Klub missile family of anti-ship and anti-submarine cruise missiles known to NATO as the SS-N-27 and SS-N-30. Testing of such sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) from a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) launcher—if that is what occurred—would constitute a technical violation of the INF Treaty. Clearly, we will have to await clarification of the details from the U.S. Government.

Not surprisingly, the Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed Washington’s accusations and made counter-charges about American drones and missile defenses in Eastern Europe. President Putin in June 2013 allegedly told a group of Russian defense industry officials that Gorbachev’s decision to sign the INF Treaty was “debatable to say the least” and that it was “hard to understand why the Soviet Union agreed to this back then.” It seems unlikely, however, that Moscow would abrogate the Treaty outright, not only because such a step would be so symbolically inflammatory, but because it really doesn’t need to. It can keep doing what it’s doing, deny any violation, and engender little outrage or reaction from a West preoccupied with other foreign policy and economic crises, including Russia’s own actions in Ukraine. And abrogating the Treaty inevitably would bring more attention to Russia’s missile deployments and could be used to justify missile defenses in Eastern Europe.

In addition to the INF “violation” charged by the State Department, some non-governmental arms control experts have been concerned that the Russians have also circumvented the Treaty by testing a “new type” of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), the RS-26, some of whose tests reportedly have fallen into the INF range of less than 5,500 km. Testing an ICBM with a range below the upper limit of the INF Treaty was anticipated during the negotiations as a way that Moscow could circumvent the ban on INF missiles. Since the U.S. apparently has not raised this as a compliance issue with Russia, however, it appears that the RS-26—which Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin referred to as a “missile defense killer”—will be considered a new ICBM and counted under the limits of a strategic arms treaty and not raised as a violation of the INF Treaty. If the U.S. is not concerned, though, European countries perhaps should be.

I can imagine the challenges facing my successors in the Intelligence Community and the arms control policy world as they try not only to understand precisely what is going on but to formulate an appropriate policy response. Unfortunately, one of the main tools that existed in my day is gone. The intrusive on-site inspection regime of the INF Treaty ended on May 31, 2001 when the last INF and SRINF weapons then in existence were destroyed. Thus, U.S. intelligence analysts will have to rely on “national technical means of verification” to monitor Russian compliance or non-compliance with the Treaty. I wish them luck.


Anne C. Gruner is a retired intelligence officer and Vice President of Gruner Associates, Ltd., a consultancy specializing in global business intelligence, investigations, risk management, and problem solving.


Photo credit: Times Asi