190205 trump putinThe start of 2019 could mark the beginning of a new era in the missile arms race. We are talking about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signatories’ non-compliance with this milestone historical agreement would not just undermine European stability but affect international security as well.


Clash of positions


The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is a 1987arms control agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union signed in Washington D.C. by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on 8 December 1987. The treaty obliged its signatories not to produce, test or deploy ground-launched nuclear and conventional missiles as well as their launchers with ranges of 500-1,000 km (short-range) and 1,000-5,500 km (intermediate range). Within three years, the parties had eliminated all launchers and ground-based missiles with ranges of 500–5,500 km, including missiles and launchers deployed in the European and Asian parts of the USSR.




The INF was the first ever agreement seeking a true arms reduction with global implications, since it demonstrated that the superpowers are ready to de-escalate tensions and eliminate the threat of the nuclear-missile confrontation between them.


Over time, the situation has changed, however. These changes were catalyzed by a number of factors, including most notably the collapse of the Soviet Union. The battle for Europe – a key aspect of the Cold War – had ceased to be relevant. Military strategy and tactics have changed, with no more emphasis placed on fully eliminating the enemy and its infrastructure. After all, the weapons of war have changed to become far more powerful and effective than they have ever been before.


Beyond that, new security threats and challenges have emerged, namely: the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 in the United States, immediately followed by


Washington’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) agreement; an increase in the number of countries owning missile weapons of various ranges; the growing threat of a missile attack from Iran and North Korea.


Under these circumstances, both of the signatory parties – the USA and the USSR’ successor state, Russia who had taken full responsibility for compliance with the INF treaty – began searching for loopholes and opportunities to rebuild their short-to-intermediate-range ballistic missile capacity. This trend became particularly visible with Vladimir Putin’s coming to power in Russia in 2000. It was back in June 2000 when he hypothetically assumed that Russia could leave the INF treaty, citing the US intention (later fulfilled) to withdraw from the ABM treaty.  


As a result, both parties have been complying only formally. Thus, the INF addresses ground-launched cruise missiles, but doesn’t include sea-launched missiles, which Washington and Moscow have exploited as an opportunity to build-up their respective sea-based ballistic missile capabilities.


In addition, the treaty limited the numbers of missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 km, but did not prohibit the development of longer-range ballistic missiles. At the same time, the USA’s LGM-30 intercontinental ballistic missile and Russia’s Yars missile both can be adapted to intermediate-range launches within the INF imposed limits.


Everything would be fine had Moscow not opted for a more aggressive stance -- allegedly in response to the opponent’s actions. For example, the Russian Federation has over the past 20 years produced a number of missile systems that not just cast doubt on the Kremlin’s willingness to abide by the agreements, but, on the contrary, indicate a departure from them.


Russian developed Iskander short-range tactical missile system is capable of ranges far in excess of its stated 500 km range. Furthermore the Kremlin owns new ground-launched RS-26 Rubezh ICBM, which, from 2016, was to be fielded with the RF Strategic Missile Forces. The missile can be adapted to ranges of 2,000–6,000 km, which exceed the INF imposed limits.


But there is more: Beginning in 2014, annual reports by the US Department of State regarding compliance with arms control agreements state that the United States has information indicating that the Russian Federation has conducted numerous tests of ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges from 500 to 5,500 km. In the most recent report, published in April of this year, the State Department (again, without specifying the exact nomenclature of the missile), said that the Russian Federation continues breaching its INF obligations.


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Experts believe this is about the 9M729-SSC-X-8 long-range ground-launched cruise missile system, which is effectively a land version of the SS-N-30 3M14 missile complex "Caliber-NK" and allegedly a part of the 9K720 Iskander-M complex. The missile’s range as assessed by American experts is between 2,000 and 5,500 km.




The above clearly indicates that the Russian Federation has formally breached its obligations by developing and testing ground-based missiles (both ballistic and cruise) that are banned under the INF treaty.


The Kremlin, on its part, is trying to accuse the United States of widely deploying sea-based missile defense systems built around the modified Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers (and their Aegis Combat System) armed with BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles.




Moscow is convinced that the Mk41 launchers (which are usually seen mounted on Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense ships) being deployed by the United States in Romania and Poland can be adapted to launch BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles, including nuclear-armed ones, in addition to ABM interceptor missiles. But multiple verifications involving experts from different countries, including former Soviet nations, refute these allegations.


Outcome and Aftermath


Over the past few years, the United States has taken multiple measures to prevent the INF Treaty breakdown. Meetings were held with senior officials of the Russian Federation, NATO and EU countries, etc. President Donald Trump’s administration, at lots of international gatherings, recalled the Kremlin of the complexity of the situation and inadmissibility of breaching its INF commitments.


At the end of 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on Russia for the country’s failure to comply with its INF obligations and gave Moscow a “chance to retreat", which it refused. The Kremlin, in its trademark manner, said, “You are all lying” and “We always abide by our commitments”.


The outgoing year 2018 did not witness stability or a resolution of existing divisions. Finally, on December 4, the US embassy in Moscow sent a note to the Russian Foreign Ministry, in which it warned the US would pull out of the INF treaty if Russia does not comply within 60 days. Simultaneously, the  US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said in a public statement, “ If Russia admits its violations and fully and verifiably comes back into compliance, we will, of course, welcome that course of action. But only Russia can save this treaty." But Moscow, again, said it honored its obligations, and all the accusations against it are faked and destructive.


What can be the consequences of scrapping the INF treaty? It is quite realistic to expect the beginning of a new battle for Europe between Washington and Moscow. The Russians will most likely continue secretively developing INF banned missile technologies without advertising them. But Russia, weakened by sanctions, clearly has no capacity to engage in an arms race similar to the one in the 1970s. The Kremlin will back itself into a corner, and nobody will be there trying to help it out.   For the Russian Federation, doing otherwise is the same as letting the Europeans resign themselves to U.S. control or letting recurrence of the Euro-missiles project failure in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


Washington, for its part, will quite likely respond rather asymmetrically to Russia’s behavior, as it already did in the 1980s. The United States already has all the necessary capacity for this, in the form of airborne and land-based cruise missiles JASSM-ER and Tomahawk, in addition to a sufficient arsenal of sea-based missiles deployed on AEGIS BDM ships. A symmetrical response involving the deployment of the US’ own intermediate-range ground-based missiles is also possible, but it can cause a crisis in relations with its NATO allies in Europe.


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While analyzing Russo-American relations in respect to the INF treaty failure and European security, one should keep in mind the factor of China. After all, Beijing has since the signing of the INF agreement in 1987 built up a powerful arsenal of ground-launched, intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles (up to 1,700 missiles), which the United States and Russia have had to eliminate. This arsenal makes Beijing more confident when planning for a possible confrontation with the USA, and the latter should, of course, take this Chinese missile capacity into account. Due to geographical specifics of Eastern Asia, the United States will be unable to employ there an asymmetric strategy with the same effectiveness as this would be in Europe. It’s not unlikely that Washington would try and reach a new INF treaty that would engage China along with Russia. But the probability of this happening is hard to estimate at this point.


How the situation will evolve is difficult to predict. But one thing is evident: the new year will begin in a highly complex international environment where the relationships between the Russian Federation and the United States are getting worse. As for Europe, it again can become a field of confrontation for countries, just as several decades ago. Only time will tell whether the parties will have enough restraint and prudence so as not to let the situation destabilize to unpredictable, terrible consequences.


Anton Mikhnenko,

Ukrainian Defense Review



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