Under the Missile’s Shadow: What Does the Passing of the INF Treaty Mean?

Inf inspection

The Trump administration’s recent announcement that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty represents an unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable, end to one of the Cold War’s cornerstone arms control agreements. The United States has yet to submit a formal notice of withdrawal, but given the statements of National Security Adviser John Bolton and President Donald Trump, it seems clear that an official notice is inevitable.

Trump explained:

We’re the ones who have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement, but Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement, so we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.

For  Bolton, who has long been opposed to the INF Treaty, the biggest driving factor seems to be the military balance with China. In his view, the treaty is an outdated restriction on U.S. capabilities, which comes across clear in comments that it was a “bilateral treaty in a multipolar ballistic missile world” placing the United States in an “excessively weak position” vis-à-vis Russia and especially China.

One by one we are losing the treaties that helped bound competition between peer nuclear powers, maintain strategic stability in the military balance, and manage security dilemmas inherited from the Cold War. For years, the INF Treaty has been a terminal patient, with Moscow in overt violation of the agreement, leaving the United States as the only country genuinely abiding by it. In 2011 Washington assessed that Russia had begun testing missiles that would constitute a compliance concern, and raised with Moscow its determination that Russia was in violation in 2013. Since its signing, the number of countries fielding the intermediate-range land-based missiles that the treaty restricted has only grown, steadily diminishing the value of this treaty for its signatories—Russia and the United States. Yet it was Russia’s conscious decision to begin developing an intermediate-range land-based cruise missile that placed the United States in the unenviable position of either having to live with Moscow’s perfidy or take the blame for abandoning a pillar of arms control.

Despite gut-wrenching protests from the arms control community, walking away from the treaty is not necessarily a mistake. That decision should rest largely on whether Washington believes the treaty is still having a constraining effect on Moscow in the number of missiles it chooses to deploy. Without such an effect, there is no remaining value to be derived from the agreement. It is important to remember that from the day this treaty was signed it was always much more favorable to the United States than to the Soviet Union and, later, Russia. That said, if only one party is complying with the deal, then it ceases to be an instrument of arms control and becomes a unilateral act of self-restraint. Discarding the INF Treaty may even help secure the extension of the much more important New START Treaty in 2021. As it stands today, extending New START would be tantamount to renewing vows despite ongoing infidelity.

Either way, the United States should build a good case with allies, and the world public, on why it has chosen to withdraw from the agreement. Washington also needs time to think through what comes after the treaty before formally tearing it up. The day after the INF Treaty is gone, Russia will find itself completely unbound in its efforts to reshape the conventional and nuclear military balance in Europe. It is doubtful that the United States is equally poised to do the same. Russian systems currently in violation of the treaty will subsequently be announced as new capabilities by Vladimir Putin. In other words, for Washington, the political and military costs of leaving the INF Treaty will materialize quickly, while the benefits may not arrive for years.

One of America’s Best Arms Control Deals

The INF Treaty banned U.S. and Soviet land-based missiles in the 500–5,500-kilometer range, while leaving sea- and air-based arsenals unconstrained. The United States reaped most of the benefits of the treaty upon signing it in 1987, as it eliminated the Soviet Union’s SS-20 Saber, an accurate intermediate-range ballistic missile that threatened NATO forces in Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev even threw in the SS-23 Oka, a shorter-range operational-tactical ballistic missile that would prove the forerunner of Russia’s current SS-26 Iskander-M system, at the objections of his own General Staff. In return, the United States eliminated its smaller arsenal of Pershing-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and BGM-109G land-based cruise missiles in Europe. The deal was in some respects a success story for coercive diplomacy—the Soviet Union rebuffed entreaties to curtail deployments of the SS-20 until U.S. Pershing missiles arrived in Europe. Both sides removed what amounted to destabilizing first-strike nuclear weapons. In total, Moscow eliminated 1,846 missiles in return for Washington demolishing 846 of its own.

The INF Treaty was, and remains, quite favorable to an expeditionary maritime power like the United States, while curtailing the ability of a land power like Russia to deploy similar classes of weapons.

The reason for Russian cheating is straightforward. Over the past several decades, the United States deployed a vast arsenal of long-range land-attack cruise missiles at sea, demonstrating their strategic utility in modern warfare across conflicts in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq (twice), Libya, and Syria. Moscow judged long ago that precision conventional weapons had displaced the role of tactical nuclear weapons in the effects they could achieve, but had few options for attaining a similar arsenal, particularly for warfare in the European theater.

On numerous occasions, I’ve heard Russians describe the treaty as a form of unilateral disarmament, allowing Washington to hold Russian territory at risk from the sea, while giving Moscow no realistic options to deploy similar capabilities in quantity. As long-time nuclear hand Frank Miller reminded us recently, during the Bush administration “Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov repeatedly raised with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the idea that both the U.S. and Russia jointly renounce the treaty.” Russia’s armed forces are, at heart, an artillery and tank force with limited capacity to field cruise missiles on ships or submarines and a shrinking strategic bomber force. Intermediate-range cruise missiles can help fill an important role for Moscow both in conventional missions, and for delivering non-strategic nuclear weapons as part of a strategy based around flexible response and escalation management. As long-range conventional weapons took on strategic importance in modern warfare, the vast asymmetry in the correlation of forces weighed heavily on Moscow’s mind.

Despite demonstrating the capability to fire land-attack cruise missiles from ships and submarines, Russia has no viable path to attaining a large sea-based cruise missile arsenal. Russia’s shipbuilding industry is at best able to build a green water navy, based around corvettes and light frigates. There is no chance of attaining substantive parity with the United States in sea-based strike systems, and little sense in pursuing that strategy against the world’s preeminent naval power. The calculus is straightforward: A single Iskander brigade armed with cruise missiles deploys as much land-attack firepower as six Russian frigates or corvettes, but in a much cheaper and more survivable package. Russian land-based missile systems are also mobile, and can be readily transported from the far eastern border with China to the European theater (and vice versa). Like the United States, Russia is equally mindful of the fact that China is unbound by arms control agreements, and therefore faces no constraints in the growth of its intermediate range missile arsenal.

By developing an intermediate-range ground-based cruise missile, known as 9M729, or SSC-8 in NATO designation, Russia first crawled, and then eventually leapt out of compliance with the INF Treaty. A recently suspended Russian ballistic missile program, known as RS-26 Rubezh, qualified as a permitted ICBM under the New START Treaty, but seemed eerily similar in purpose to the old Soviet SS-20 Saber, originally eliminated by the INF Treaty. That said, Moscow had long complained that by deploying an AEGIS Ashore missile defense system in Europe, with modified Mk-41 missile tubes that could be altered to fire cruise missiles, the United States was in violation — if not the letter then perhaps the spirit — of the treaty.

Russia has always had an allergic reaction to U.S. missile defense in Europe, believing that such investments are part of a long-term strategy to attain invulnerability against Russian nuclear forces and thereby render their deterrent meaningless in the coming decades. It is possible that Russia thought it could at some point trade a new land-based missile system for the withdrawal of U.S. missile defense in Europe, or attain a modification to the treaty. Such hopes were misplaced. Since the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, Washington has consistently prized the pursuit of missile defense over its potentially adverse impact on arms control. The panoply of new or novel nuclear weapons announced by Vladimir Putin in his March 2018 address demonstrates the extent to which Moscow has invested in expensive programs as a hedge against future U.S. missile defense systems.

A Requiem for Arms Control

Given irreconcilable differences, walking away from the treaty may ultimately be the best option for the United States. Yet doing so without a plan will simply further enable Russia to deploy intermediate-range land-based cruise and ballistic missiles, with Washington taking the blame — as Moscow always intended — for withdrawing from the agreement. Meanwhile, comparable American systems are years or decades away, assuming Congress will even fund them, and it is quite doubtful that European allies would eagerly invite such weapons to be based on their soil again. Perhaps the most promising U.S. weapon close to viability is the Army’s Precision Strike Missile project, which as planned tops out at 499 kilometers. However, such road mobile short range ballistic missiles are at best analogous to Russia’s Iskander-M. Beyond a panoply of land based strike systems, Russia also has upwards of 2,000 non-strategic nuclear warheads to mount on their missiles, compared to the few hundred gravity bombs that represent America’s entire tactical nuclear arsenal. If, in the not-too-distant future, Russian intermediate-range missiles have operationally assigned nuclear warheads, and American missiles do not, it’s not exactly a parity of capability.

Withdrawing from the INF Treaty may seem an initial victory for Moscow. Putin certainly did not seem surprised, and made light of the event with John Bolton. Russian officials, if anything, are eerily positive on Bolton’s visit, suggesting they see this outcome as a win — getting away with cheating and placing the blame on the United States for killing the treaty. It seems Russia wanted out of the INF Treaty, refusing to even acknowledge the treaty violation. Upon arriving in Moscow, Bolton was greeted with the same old policy line that it was not Russian missile programs, but actually the United States, that had broken the agreement. Moscow likely judges that it is much better positioned to capitalize on U.S. withdrawal in the near term by being able to deploy intermediate range missiles once more in Europe. The INF Treaty bound Russia, but also offered a hedge against worst-case outcomes, that is, a redeployment of U.S. missiles in Europe, within minutes’ flight time from Russian cities. Moscow has judged that it can effectively compete for parity with the United States in conventional missiles, and for superiority in non-strategic nuclear weapons.

However, Russia’s gains are not without long-term costs. First and foremost, Russia will further lose status and recognition as a great power that once signed treaties as a peer of the United States. Moscow views itself as holding a special position, responsible for international security alongside Washington, in large part thanks to arms control agreements. The United States and the Soviet Union were never really peers outside of the military balance (and even then the matter was debatable), but arms control treaties served to confer on Moscow the status of Washington’s equal in international politics. As those agreements fray, so too do Russian hopes for regaining the respect and status once held by the Soviet Union. The New START Treaty remains, but it’s unclear if it will be extended and whether another agreement will ever follow it once the deal expires. Given the asymmetry in economic resources, the United States is much better positioned to eventually deploy a substantially larger arsenal of intermediate-range missiles than Russia. Rather than basing them in Western Germany, short- and intermediate-range missiles could eventually find their way to NATO’s eastern member states, where they would pose an existential threat to Russia.

Were there alternatives? If Russia was seriously vested in preserving the treaty, the United States could have considered negotiating a modification despite Russian chicanery. A modified INF Treaty could be one based on limits, as opposed to a moratorium on intermediate range systems, or could offer Russia a new set of benefits and constraints to deploying intermediate-range systems en masse. The treaty could be made regional so as to address U.S. concerns about the military balance with China (i.e. it could exclude the Asia-Pacific region). Staying in the INF Treaty could still buy time to get Congress onboard while allowing Washington to build a stronger case with allies and the world public on why Russia is to blame for the collapse of the treaty. Russia may not care about its credibility, but Washington certainly should. Between John Bolton’s long-standing opposition to the INF Treaty, and the president’s idiosyncratic form of diplomacy, the United States is not well positioned to simply withdraw without paying political costs.

For years, Washington pursued an ill-fated policy to get Moscow back into compliance with the treaty. Frustration with that failure has led to a seemingly rash, though understandable, political decision to part with the INF Treaty. H.G. Wells remarked that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. The passing of the INF Treaty is symptomatic of a time when the world is witnessing a renewed wave of nuclear modernization, and the deals that helped keep catastrophe at bay are disappearing. We are set to return to a dangerous period of brinksmanship, fueled by new technology and unrestrained competition, akin to the 1950s and 1960s of the Cold War. The world was fortunate to survive that period of confrontation; It’s a shame that the great powers of today have willingly elected to relive the experience.


Michael Kofman is a Senior Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as program manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

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