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Russia’s INF Treaty Non-Compliance: Degrading Future Arms Control Prospects

May 2nd, 2016

By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow

Russia’s apparent abrogation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty represents a serious challenge to Euro-Atlantic security and will likely have a major impact on the future of regional and international arms control. The 1987 Treaty, eliminating ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 km, is the only arms control agreement that addresses non-strategic nuclear weapons (NSNW). Regardless of why Moscow chose to violate INF, the impacts are significant and fall into two categories. From a military standpoint, circumventing the Treaty provides Russia with a new capability possessing greater range than many of its NSNW’s and not restricted by the aggregate Central Limits of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). As a result, should a conflict arise, Russia will have an additional weapon system with which it can threaten Western Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and elsewhere. Perhaps more importantly from a political standpoint, if Russia’s disregard of INF is not reversed with a corresponding return to compliance, the foundational underpinnings not only of the INF Treaty but also of other arms control agreements are likely to be called into question. Having avoided the imposition of economic and political costs stemming from its non-compliance, Russian leaders may well surmise that current and future agreements are similarly unenforceable. Should the US-Russia arms control regime erode, it will have implications beyond their bilateral relationship.

The military ramifications of Russia’s INF non-compliance are clear. From the onset, there is a qualitative addition. Moscow will have a new missile capability in its arsenal, with its own unique characteristics, although it should be reiterated that US officials have remained ambiguous regarding whether the system is intended as a conventional, nuclear, or dual-use capability. Regardless, this new system will provide Moscow with unique capability senior officials can leverage to threaten targets beyond its immediate borders. There is also a quantitative element to consider. Because Russia denies the existence of the system and, presumably, has kept it away from its New START-identified strategic force bases, the capability will not be counted toward the New START Central Limits. As a result, the Putin Administration possesses a delivery vehicle – an intermediate range ground-launched cruise missile – that can augment its strategic forces (for example, it may be possible to re-allocate current strategic targets to the new intermediate system), thereby challenging the parity brought on by New START.

From Washington’s vantage point, the new system will add additional planning factors from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint. In light of Russia’s escalate-to-deescalate strategy, this capability could be used in a tailored fashion. For instance, on one hand reaching a target in Central or Western Europe may be beyond the range of Moscow’s current NSNW capabilities and the political ramifications of a strategic strike may be deemed too destabilizing – even for the Putin Administration. On the other hand, an intermediate capability would have the range Moscow desires yet not send the same escalatory message as a strategic weapon. Furthermore, because the US remains INF-compliant, it may have trouble responding in a commensurate manner, something that may be necessary to deter further Russian actions and assure allies. Quantitatively, should the INF violator be regarded as a significant military threat, the weapon system will add targets for Washington’s military planners to assess. Mathematically, considering the constrained US arsenal, additional targets may lead to a decrease in available resources elsewhere. The complexities fostered by these two items could pose obstacles for the US, thereby incentivizing Russia’s continued violation of the INF Treaty.

Nevertheless, when considering the impact of Moscow’s Treaty abrogation, the much more enduring ramifications are likely to be political. The US-Russia arms control regime of the last forty-five years has focused on aggregate limits in the nuclear domain dating back to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement. Trust underwrites the verification mechanisms that guarantee both parties are observing their commitments. Ensuring Treaty compliance by implementing a robust framework of verification measures including on-site inspection activities, regular reporting requirements, and the use of observation technology (also referred to as National Technical Means) is paramount. Yet, both parties must also be able to trust one another. Otherwise, there will be suspicions that the other side has found a way to clandestinely circumvent its obligations. Consequently, trust and verification produce a symbiotic relationship in the highly complex US-Russia arms control regime.

Once confidence in process integrity has been eroded, the short term reliability of verification measures becomes suspect. The party that believes it has been deceived, in this case the US, will question whether capabilities are being hidden. Depending upon the severity in the breach of trust, there may even be calls for retribution of some kind – for instance, withdrawal from the current agreement or calls for a more invasive follow-on accord. It will take time and, quite possibly, considerable effort for trust to be reinfused into the relationship. Even if the offending party, in this case Russia, wishes to return to compliance, process integrity will not emerge overnight. In many respects, repairing the damage will be a more protracted exercise than the initial diplomatic efforts to bring the current arms control regime to life.

Compounding matters further, the US has done little to respond to Russia’s non-compliance. Presumably there are a number of reasons including, but not limited to, the position(s) of regional allies and how Moscow might respond to a more forceful stance from Washington. The reality though is that beyond American public statements accusing Russia of INF violations, the Putin Administration has emerged essentially unscathed. The lack of a determined response weakens the credibility and perceived resolve of the US and its allies. Such a deflating reply will likely not give Russia’s leaders second thoughts next time they make a decision on treaty compliance. Indeed, given the response to date, if the Putin Administration has learned anything from this situation, it is that adherence to arms control agreements can be determined at a time and place of its choosing.

In the case of US-Russia arms control, and the broader Euro-Atlantic stability framework, early signs of long term degradation are already beginning to show. Added to Moscow’s INF Treaty violation is its disregard of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and its willingness to push the limits of compliance with respect to the Open Skies Treaty (OST). Yet, amongst these various issues, circumvention of the INF Treaty stands apart because of the clandestine manner with which Russia has abrogated its commitments. Regarding CFE and OST, Russia’s actions have been visible, and the Euro-Atlantic community has had an opportunity to prepare for Moscow’s recalcitrance. However, the effort to usurp the INF Treaty suggests a more premeditated enterprise that could be replicated for more vital agreements – specifically New START and any follow-on accord. Within this context, how can Russia be trusted to adhere to any arms control measure? When tallied, compliance concerns regarding CFE, INF, and OST paint a very stark picture for successfully negotiating the future of the Euro-Atlantic arms control and broader stability framework.

Particularly within the context of a New START follow-on agreement, Russia’s violation of INF may be an obstacle of consequence. Doubts over Moscow’s intentions – namely a willingness to maintain Euro-Atlantic stability – are likely to necessitate more intrusive verification mechanisms. Indeed, should strategic offensive systems continue to decrease in the aggregate, there will need to be a greater emphasis on maintaining parity. As a result, verification measures will be even more important. Commensurately, trust must exist in order to reduce concerns over any efforts at clandestinely circumventing Treaty obligations. Considering Russian actions vis-à-vis the INF Treaty, there will be significant pressure on US negotiators to garner an even more robust series of verification mechanisms than those achieved under New START. Unfortunately, given Russia’s recent actions in the arms control arena, the likelihood that Moscow will accept greater transparency is doubtful. Under these conditions, the prospects for continued Euro-Atlantic arms control are not ideal.

Moscow’s blatant disregard for its INF commitments combined with its handling of CFE and OST calls into question its willingness and long term belief in the utility of the current Euro-Atlantic stability framework. Unfortunately, the military and political benefits it has garnered from violating INF are likely to further embolden hardliners in the regime. Compounding the problem has been the limited response offered by the US. Although it has accused Moscow of non-compliance, Washington has done little more to address the issue. As a result, the future of the US-Russia arms control regime is in doubt. Pressure to attain more invasive verification measures in follow-on agreements are likely to push Moscow further away. However, not acquiring a more transparent framework will make the prospects for Senate ratification less likely. Ultimately, Russia’s actions have significantly contributed to the long term degradation of Euro-Atlantic security and stability.

About Davis Florick

Davis Florick is a Senior Fellow in the Security and Defence division. He recently completed his master's in East-West Studies at Creighton University and is a member of the 2015 Nuclear Scholars Initiative with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His foreign relations areas of concentration include, East Asia and the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union.