I’ve been meaning to write something about the back-and-forth over claims that Russia is violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but just haven’t had time.  My colleague, Nikolai Sokov, has sent along his thoughts on the issue.  I hope to join the discussion in the comments.

Allegations of Russian Arms Control Cheating are Unfounded, But a Good Reason to Revisit Treaty Options

By Nikolai N. Sokov

Reports about alleged Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty have surfaced once again—this time in an article published by the Daily Beast.[1]

The article generally rehashes arguments voiced during the previous wave of similar allegations raised last summer, predictably, by Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz, who has a long history of writing anonymously-sourced articles painting Russian (and Chinese) military activities in the most sinister light.[2]

The allegations concern tests of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)—the RS-24 Yars-M (designated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO as the SS-27)—as well as an older Topol ICBM (SS-25) at a range below the 5,500 kilometer cut-off that defines strategic land-based systems. These tests were cited as evidence that Russia was seeking to circumvent the INF Treaty, which bans US and Soviet land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia became a party to that treaty).

Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists refuted these allegations last summer with excellent legally- and technically-grounded responses.[3] They noted, among other things, that the range of a weapon system under all US-Soviet/Russian treaties is defined as the maximum range and that nothing prevents the parties from testing their missiles at ranges below that maximum; since the Yars has a maximum range above the cut-off (it was tested previously at a range of 5,800 km, according to Kristensen), it is clearly falls under the legal definition of a strategic weapon. Pifer added that, during the INF Treaty negotiations, the Ronald Reagan administration assumed the Soviets would reallocate some of their ICBMs to targets in Europe, but that did not prevent the United States from signing the treaty.

It is not completely clear why the Daily Beast decided to revive the issue. Perhaps it’s because an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which was proposed last June by ten Republican senators led by Senator James Risch (R-ID), has successfully avoided motions for cloture, the latest time on November 21 by a vote of 51-44. The Risch amendment requires the administration to provide, within sixty days, information about “compliance and consistency issues associated with the INF Treaty, including a listing and assessment of all Ground Launched Russian Federation Systems being designed, tested, or deployed with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers,” as well as information sharing (and withholding) within NATO with regard to the INF Treaty.[4] It is difficult to see how such a report—if it adheres to the facts—could say anything but “Russia complies,” but we might be in for yet another round of the same debate next year if the amendment remains part of the bill.

While the allegations made by Gertz are unfounded on legal or technical grounds, it might make sense to look a bit beyond them in preparation for a possible new round of accusations and counter-accusations (which Russia can mount, too). In particular, there are two sets of issues.

The first concerns how the current approach to the definition of ranges emerged and whether it might make sense to change it to avoid similar conundrums in the future. Second, apart from the specific allegations, is there a reason to be concerned about continued Russian adherence to the INF Treaty, especially in the view of repeated statements by a small but influential number of Russian officials about the desire to abrogate it?

Definitions of Weapon Systems: A Cold War Legacy

The vast majority of definitions used in arms control treaties were created during the Cold War; in fact, the definition of an ICBM was perhaps the first such definition and emerged during the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations (the SALT I agreement was signed in 1972). The preoccupation of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia during two decades of negotiations was the maximum capability that could be launched in the first strike by the other party. If a missile could be loaded with ten warheads, it would be counted against treaty limits as carrying ten warheads rather than the actual number (START I counted all Soviet SS-18 ICBMs as carrying 10 warheads even though some of them were only deployed with one). If a missile could fly from one continent to another, it was considered strategic regardless of whether it could be used on shorter trajectories (both states had many other systems specifically designed for shorter ranges, so why worry?).

Granted, this principle was not always applied consistently. For example, SS-18 had been tested with 12 warheads, but was normally deployed (and counted against treaty limits) with ten, while the Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the United States was tested with fourteen warheads but deployed (and counted) with eight. Still, by and large, both parties were primarily concerned about the full strength of a theoretical first strike and hence tended to pay more attention to longer ranges and higher numbers of warheads.

After the end of the Cold War, the United States and, to a much more limited extent, Russia, began to “download” delivery vehicles (i.e., deploying weapons systems with fewer than the maximum or agreed number of warheads), which, for the United States, became the primary means of reductions. As a result, when the 1991 START I Treaty expired in 2009, the treaty-accountable number of US warheads was approximately double the actually deployed number.

The 2002 Moscow Treaty and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) moved to a new principle of warhead accounting—from the maximum to the actual number (as a result, the two states’ delivery vehicles can carry many more warheads than the limits established by treaty texts). The same was not done, however, with regard to missile ranges—we still categorize missiles by their maximum range. Definitions have simply been transferred from one treaty to another: for ballistic missiles they have not changed since 1972. Should we now consider establishing a lower limit as well to avoid a repeat of the Yars incident?

Although theoretically possible, such a move would be too complicated to be practical. To begin with, it is next to impossible to differentiate between a failed flight test and a test to a reduced distance. No one can give assurances that all tests will be successful, especially tests of new missiles: Russia’s Bulava SLBM program has seen almost half of its flight tests fail. In fact, the most recent failed test—in which the missile barely left the submarine—could have classified the missile as tactical, if one followed the logic of those who accuse Russia of violating the INF Treaty. The only result of such an attempt would be unending bickering between the United States and Russia over whether a particular test was a failure or a prohibited type of launch.

Moreover, any attempt to revise the definition of ballistic missiles could not be limited to land-based systems. For example, it is likely that Russia might want to revise the definition of SLBMs. The cut-off range is currently only 600 km, a figure agreed to under SALT I when states still had first-generation SLBMs with very short ranges. But all existing SLBMs have ranges comparable to those of ICBMs. Hans Kristensen describes a test of Trident II D-5 in March 2006 along a compressed trajectory to a distance of 2,200 km, although it is typically tested to the range well over 7,400 km. Under the existing legal standards, this is still a strategic distance, but Russia can be expected to seek the establishment of a minimum distance for SLBMs, too, to prevent the United States from continuing these tests. Trident II launches with compressed trajectory have been a concern for the Soviet Union and now Russia for well over two decades, and it is only logical to expect Moscow to raise that issue once Pandora’s box is opened.

Common sense suggests that existing definitions should not be touched or reinterpreted at least until a new treaty can be negotiated. Claims about technical violations are nothing new, and in the vast majority of cases they generate little attention. For example, throughout the fifteen-year history of START I inspections, Russia claimed it was unable to confirm that the number of warheads on US Trident II D-5 SLBMs did not exceed eight, which could be construed as a violation (the US Navy insisted on special procedures for these inspections, in contrast to the procedures the Air Force used for ICBMs, which did not give rise to controversies). In spite of that, START I was successfully implemented and allegations did not preclude the negotiation of new treaties.

Is There a Future for the INF Treaty?

A much more serious question is the future of the INF Treaty, which some in Russia consider a relic of the Cold War and fundamentally unfair because it only applies to two states. It is well known that in 2005 and 2006, Sergey Ivanov, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and at that time the minister of defense, raised the prospect of Russia withdrawing from the INF Treaty at meetings with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; according to Russian reports, Rumsfeld did not immediately reject the possibility.[5]

Moscow had two arguments to support that proposition, and both are made today. First, many states, including in the vicinity of Russia, have developed or are working on intermediate-range missiles, which was not the case when the INF Treaty was negotiated. Although Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, and Israeli programs might be of limited concern to the United States (except when affecting its allies) they are an immediate and serious security concern for Moscow.

It is also worth recalling that when the Russian military began for the first time to voice displeasure with the INF Treaty in 2000-01, some high-level military officials hinted that they needed conventional rather than nuclear payloads on intermediate-range missiles. In other words, they did not advocate a nuclear capability and saw such missiles in a strategic context radically different from the one in which the 1987 treaty was negotiated (i.e., an Asian instead of a European threat).

The second argument is the 2002 US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. According to Russian logic, if the George W. Bush administration could abrogate a Cold War treaty, based on the perception that it constrained US ability to respond to new, post-Cold War challenges, Moscow was entitled to take similar steps.

In 2007, the United States and Russia jointly tabled at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva a draft of a multilateral INF Treaty that was intended to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, the prospects of serious negotiations on that initiative are close to zero: states that have or are developing intermediate-range missiles have displayed no interest in banning them. Shortly thereafter, Russia abandoned the idea of abrogating the INF Treaty, likely as a consequence of the Russian Air Force’s deployment of conventionally armed air-launched cruise missiles and also the prohibitive costs of developing and producing a new generation of conventional intermediate-range missiles.

The issue is not completely closed, however, and Russian officials have raised the prospect of withdrawing from the INF Treaty from time to time. The effort is still spearheaded by Sergey Ivanov—currently the head of the presidential administration—who remarked in June 2013, during the high point of the allegations in the United States about Russian violations of the INF Treaty, that it should be abrogated. He conceded that he understood US support for the treaty—the United States, he said, “could only use [these weapons] against Mexico and Canada,” but the Russian security environment is different.[6] These proposals, however, continue to lack sufficient domestic support and the prospect of Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty does not appear plausible.

Conclusion and Forecast

US allegations about Russian violations of the INF Treaty are not only counterproductive for continued engagement of the two states in discussion of further reduction of nuclear arms, they also demonstrate a lack of understanding of the realities of the Russian political process. If proponents of developing and deploying new intermediate-range missiles succeed in mobilizing domestic support, a political decision about withdrawal can be made quickly and without much hesitation. The US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty provides a convenient precedent, which Moscow can use at will.

In other words, Russia does not need to find clandestine ways to circumvent the INF Treaty. The tests of Russian ICBMs to ranges shorter than 5,500 are in all likelihood exactly what Russia has unofficially claimed: tests of new warheads designed to penetrate US missile defenses. The Sary Shagan test range in Central Asia, to which missiles were launched during the tests in question, has been engaged in missile defense research since at least 1960s, and from that perspective it made sense to use it instead of moving all the hardware to the other test range on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

In the longer term, however, the future of the INF Treaty remains uncertain and the issue has little or nothing to do with the United States, NATO, Japan, or other US friends and allies. This is primarily about the emerging strike capability of states to the south of Russia—many of the same states whose programs serve as a justification for US and NATO missile defense programs. Unlike the United States, however, Russia also seeks a comparable strike capability, in addition to its already active missile defense programs. Today and in the near future this capability is supported by air-based assets. Only time will tell if ballistic missiles will be used to augment this capability. At a minimum, the remaining uncertainty warrants a renewed effort to push through a multilateral INF Treaty, whether completely banning these missiles, like the bilateral US-Russian 1987 treaty did, or at least limiting them and providing greater transparency for these systems.

 

Nikolai N. Sokov is a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

 


[2] Bill Gertz, “Russian Aggression: Putin Violating Nuclear Missile Treaty,” Washington Times, June 25, 2013.

[4] Congress.gov, “S. Amdt. 2176 to S. 1197,” November 19, 2013.

[5] For details see Nikolai Sokov, “Russian Military Debates Withdrawal from the INF Treaty,” WMD Insights, October 2006, pp. 30-33.

[6] “Dogovor po RSMD ne Mozhet Deistrovat Beskonechno, Zayavil Ivanov” [The INF Treaty Cannot Remain in Force Indefinitely, Declared Ivanov], RIA-Novosti, June 21, 2013.