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The 1987 Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) is on the verge of collapse. The controversy surrounding the treaty, which mainly stems from the alleged development and testing of prohibited ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) by Russia, has built up over several years and worsened in early 2017 following accusations by the United States that Russia had begun to deploy the missiles during 2016. Russia has rejected the accusations and countered with its own allegations of US non-compliance with the INF Treaty.
Under the INF Treaty, the original parties (the Soviet Union and the USA) agreed not to possess, produce or flight test a ballistic missile or GLCM with a range capability of 500 to 5500 kilometres, or to possess or produce launchers for such missiles. The treaty thereby helped to reduce the risk of war in Europe and set the stage for subsequent US–Russian strategic arms limitation talks. Consequently, the demise of the INF Treaty could endanger both the bilateral nuclear arms control process, including the arms reduction process under the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START), and regional security.
Many arms control experts and commentators are pessimistic about the prospects of preserving the INF Treaty. As one commentator put it: ‘both the United States and Russia seem inclined to let the INF Treaty collapse.’ Attempts to resolve the dispute using the treaty’s dispute-resolution mechanism, known as the Special Verification Commission (SVC), have so far been unsuccessful. As a result of this and the more general deterioration of relations between Russia and the West in recent years, the USA’s focus has increasingly shifted from pursuing diplomatic options to punishing Russia, mainly through the use of sanctions. However, such responses not only might fail to have the desired effect of incentivizing Russia to return to compliance with the INF Treaty (if indeed there has been a violation), but also might aggravate the dispute and further heighten tensions. Arguably, a more desirable approach to preserving the INF Treaty would be through strengthening the bilateral arms control mechanisms and practices, and by moving from mutual recriminations to reciprocal efforts to address relevant concerns.
According to a 2015 US intelligence assessment, Russia began tests of the prohibited GLCM about 10 years ago. The USA first raised the issue with Russia in 2013, and notified its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in 2015. On 8 March 2017 the Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, confirmed that Russia had deployed a GLCM that violated ‘the spirit and intent’ of the INF Treaty. He believed that the purpose of the deployment was ‘to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility’.
Apart from the US-designated code name ‘SSC-8’ (the Russian designation is 9M729), little is publicly known about the technical details of Russia’s new cruise missile. There nevertheless seems to be broad agreement that the SSC-8 resembles the intermediate-range Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), and that it might be a part of the Iskander system, used (in compliance with the INF Treaty) for short-range ballistic and cruise missiles. The latter assumption implies that the SSC-8 uses the same road-mobile launcher as short-range Iskander missiles, posing a problem for US satellite surveillance.
Russia has denied the allegations and has criticized the USA’s refusal to provide evidence. It argues that the USA is itself violating the INF Treaty—notably due to the USA’s deployment of Mk-41 launchers at the ballistic missile defence (BMD) site in Romania and the planned deployment of such launchers at the BMD site in Poland, after its completion by 2020. More specifically, Russia argues that the launchers—which are essentially the same as those used for SLCMs—could be used as a delivery vehicle for intermediate-range Tomahawk cruise missiles, making them incompatible with the INF Treaty.
Potential or proven range?
The INF Treaty does not prohibit SLCMs or the short-range Iskander launcher, therefore the issue of non-compliance seems to arise when the two systems are combined. This might also mean that Russia’s violation is not as clear-cut as US reports suggest, as the INF Treaty allows limited testing of cruise missiles on land, provided that they are ‘not … to be used in a ground-based mode’ and that tests are done using ‘a fixed land-based launcher which is used solely for test purposes and which is distinguishable from GLCM launchers’. Adding to the ambiguity is that the actual range of missiles could be longer than demonstrated during testing, and the Iskander system could also be used to launch intermediate-range missiles. The INF Treaty prohibits GLCM tests if ‘the maximum distance which can be covered by the missile in its standard design mode flying until fuel exhaustion’ is between 500 and 5000 km.
Although he does not exclude the possibility of an INF Treaty violation by Russia, Mikhail Barabanov, who is an expert on Russian military matters, suggests that the controversy could be related to the increased fuel capacity of the new SSC-8 missile. He argues that US intelligence might be based on Russia’s 2016 deployment of these missiles with launchers and loader transport vehicles at a military site in Elanskiy, Sverdlovskaya oblast. According to Barabanov, the SSC-8 missile may have an extended range because of its larger tankage volume compared with the previous modification, the SSC-7 (Russian designation, 9M728).
However, the USA has denied that its concerns are related merely to the hypothetical range of the missile. As the then Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Rose Gottemoeller, argued in 2015: ‘We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty.’
According to US press reports, the prohibited missile tests took place at the Kapustin Yar test site in western Russia. However, if that is true, it implicates Kazakhstan’s involvement: to test any missiles other than short-range missiles from Kapustin Yar, Russia needs to use facilities located in Kazakhstan, notably the Sary Shagan test site 2000 km away, as the missiles’ landing point. Yet, there is no publicly available information on SSC-8 tests from Kapustin Yar to Sary Shagan.
The Trump administration’s response
While the previous US administration sought to resolve the INF Treaty controversy through a number of informal bilateral meetings, the approach taken by the administration of President Donald J. Trump has mainly revolved around countermeasures to the alleged Russian violation. In addition to the reports alleging the deployment of the SSC‑8, this new approach has been shaped by the failure of two SVC meetings (in November 2016 and December 2017) to become a platform for the US–Russian dialogue on the treaty, and the growing calls for a stronger US response.
The USA’s withdrawal from the treaty has also been discussed. As John Wolfsthal, former Senior Director for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Security Council, stated in the US Congress in 2017: ‘If we cannot ensure our security and that of our allies in East Asia or Europe under the INF Treaty, including steps we can take as a legal counter-measure, then I remain open to arguments for our withdrawal.’
On 20 December 2017 the US Department of Commerce imposed sanctions on two Russian companies based on their involvement in the development of the GLCM system at the centre of the allegations. Moreover, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released in February 2018, calls for starting ‘Treaty-compliant research and development [R&D] by reviewing military concepts and options for conventional, ground launched, intermediate-range missile systems’, and the reintroduction of nuclear-armed SLCMs as an ‘INF-Treaty compliant response to Russia’s violation’. Although such R&D does not constitute a breach of the INF Treaty, which only prohibits the testing and deployment of the proscribed land-based missiles, it clearly poses an additional threat to the future of the treaty.
If indeed it is the ambiguity surrounding the SSC-8 that lies at the heart of the US claims of Russian violation, it seems that Russia has not been especially eager to clarify the situation by addressing all the relevant questions through bilateral channels. This suggests that Russia sees either political value in maintaining the ambiguity or military value in having the prohibited missiles in its arsenal.
In terms of political value, Barabanov noted in 2017 that, by ‘violating the INF Treaty in response to the US actions, Russia may want to coerce the USA into a meaningful conversation on the treaty with a discussion of all the issues’. If that is the case, the Russian strategy has not been particularly successful. As previously noted, thus far it has merely provoked countermeasures from the USA.
However, assuming that military motivations are driving Russia’s actions, there are at least three possible hypotheses as to why it is pursuing its controversial cruise missile policy—namely Russia’s perceived need to counter (a) the intermediate-range missiles of its eastern and southern neighbours, (b) NATO’s conventional superiority, and (c) US (and NATO) BMD deployments in Europe.
A policy in response to its neighbours’ arsenals?
The idea that Russia needs intermediate GLCMs to match the corresponding capabilities of ‘all the countries on the arch that spans from North Korea to Israel, including Pakistan, India and Iran’, is supported by earlier Russian statements. Several Russian officials have criticized the INF Treaty on the grounds that other states are not bound by it and, unlike the USA, Russia is within the range of the missiles of such countries. Indeed, in this context some Russian officials, including the former Defence Minister, Igor Ivanov, in 2007, have reportedly also entertained the possibility of a Russian withdrawal from the treaty.
However, none of the countries on Russia’s eastern and southern borders seem to rank particularly high in Moscow’s threat perceptions. Indeed, Russia has relatively cordial relations with China, India and Pakistan, which all have advanced missile capabilities and are co-members in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Thus while Russia might harbour some concerns about the nuclear arsenals and missile capabilities of its neighbours, most notably China, at present and for the foreseeable future these concerns will most likely coexist with its overall friendly relations with these countries.
A policy in response to the conventional imbalance with NATO?
The idea that the GLCMs at the centre of the allegations give Russia leverage against NATO’s conventional military capabilities seems somewhat more plausible, given NATO’s prominent role in Russian threat perceptions. As noted in a US Congressional Research Service report from 2015 on Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty, GLCMs ‘could fill a gap in Russia’s conventional capabilities’ by giving it the ability to target most of Europe and deter ‘NATO’s use of precision conventional weapons, such as … Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles’. While this might have been one of the initial drivers for Russia’s alleged development of the prohibited GLCMs—which, according to US sources, were first tested in 2008—it seems to be less plausible as the rationale behind their reported deployment in 2016. Russia has notably narrowed the gap between it and NATO in terms of conventional capabilities over the past decade.
The debate about the military balance in Europe between Russia on the one side and the USA and its NATO allies on the other is linked to the concept of ‘limited nuclear war’ and its recent manifestations, such as the development of ‘flexible and low-yield options’ and the role of non-strategic forces for ‘showing resolve’ or ‘de-escalating conflicts’. Alexei Arbatov, head of the Centre for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, recalls that the concept of limited nuclear war was rejected by NATO in the 1970s and 1980s as too dangerous, and it was never part of the Soviet nuclear doctrine. Moreover, in a statement in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Russia has grave concerns about the development of low-yield options.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that Russia mainly relies on strategic nuclear weapons to keep the balance with the USA and its NATO allies in Europe. Hence the new GLCM—if armed with nuclear weapons—would likely play only a secondary role in this context. Furthermore, Russia already has the ability to target any part of Europe with its intercontinental ballistic missiles, as well as its sea- and air-launched cruise missiles. The new GLCM would not add significantly to these capabilities.
A policy in response to US and NATO ballistic missile defence?
The third hypothesis is that Russia’s GLCM development is driven by its long-standing concerns over US BMD deployments in Europe. Since 2007—when the USA began negotiations with East European countries on the placement of anti-missile interceptors and radars—Russia has repeatedly voiced concerns that such systems could threaten its nuclear deterrent, making it vulnerable to a US counterforce strike. More specifically, the concern is based on a combination of BMD and other advanced conventional weapons; as Putin explained in June 2016: ‘a strategic missile defence system is … tightly linked to offensive missile strike systems. Some high-precision weapons are used to carry out a pre-emptive strike, while others serve as a shield against a retaliatory strike, and still others carry out nuclear strikes.’
Consultations on the BMD deployments at the NATO–Russia Council in 2009–13 failed to allay Russia’s concerns, and it vowed to respond not only by employing enhanced strategic countermeasures but also by developing the military capability to neutralize BMDs. In 2011 the then Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, warned that, if the dispute over BMD with the USA and its NATO allies remained unresolved, Russia would ‘deploy modern offensive weapon systems in the west and south of the country, ensuring our ability to take out any part of the US missile defence system in Europe’. Medvedev and other officials have referred to the deployment of Iskander systems in Kaliningrad as one step to achieving such capacity. The deployment of a new GLCM for the Iskander might well have been another step.
Indeed, Iskander-launched intermediate-range missiles would arguably better serve the function of neutralizing BMDs than short-range missiles. Unlike the latter—which would be able to reach NATO’s BMD sites only if they were launched from Kaliningrad—intermediate-range missiles could also be launched from the Russian mainland, where they would be less vulnerable to a NATO attack. Moreover, missile defences can be defeated most effectively by the use of a combination of both ballistic and cruise missiles. It is also worth noting that some Russian officials have presented the BMD dispute as a reason for withdrawing from the INF Treaty.
Given the high priority that Russia places on ensuring its capability to overcome US BMDs, the latter hypothesis seems to be the most compelling explanation for its GLCM development. In his presidential address on 1 March 2018, Putin confirmed that the need to overcome US missile defences remains a key driver behind Russia’s development of its military capabilities. He also stated that Russia had increased ‘the number of guided cruise missiles [in its arsenal] … by over 30 times’. While Putin did not indicate when this stated growth happened, it could have taken place in the past decade and could well have included the controversial missiles at Elanskiy and Kapustin Yar.
However, the location of the Elanskiy missile group in the middle of Russia does not seem optimal for operations against US missile defence installations in Eastern Europe or Aegis ships in the Mediterranean and North Seas. (The Kapustin Yar site does not have a combat role.) Given that Russia is chiefly concerned about the potential increase of US BMD numbers and capabilities in the future, it could be argued that the current deployments are merely the first step in preparation for the development and deployment of a more extensive cruise missile arsenal. But the slow production of new cruise missiles and Russia’s decision to decrease defence spending to 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019 suggest that there are no plans for such expansion.
Rather, the Elanskiy site will probably serve as a depot for the Iskander systems, allowing them to be quickly relocated to perform various functions, not just at the western border but in all border areas depending on the situation. After all, one of the key advantages of the truck-based Iskander system is mobility. This feature has been highlighted in recent military exercises, including those organized outside Russian territory such as the joint anti-terrorism exercises conducted in 2017.
Multi-level approach needed
The dismissiveness of both Russia and the USA towards each other’s concerns in the context of the INF Treaty inspires little confidence in the treaty itself or arms control in general. In all probability, the situation will not be improved by the Trump administration’s current punitive approach; the political and economic costs imposed by sanctions are unlikely to influence the strategic calculus underlying Russian cruise missile policy. By contrast, the proposed introduction of new US weapons, and particularly the deployment of BMDs in Eastern Europe, might feed into that calculus by further heightening Russia’s threat perceptions.
An alternative approach would be to resume the US–Russian arms control dialogue and broaden the agenda to include not only capabilities related to the INF Treaty, but also other issues, notably BMDs. Although the current political atmosphere is not conducive to arms control, the ground for dialogue could be tested in the confidential context of the US–Russian Strategic Stability Talks.
Two levels of diplomacy seem to be crucial for such a process to take place. First, the leaderships in Russia and the USA need to demonstrate political will to preserve existing arms control agreements despite their deep disagreements on the INF Treaty and other issues. Trump’s proposal for a bilateral summit during his telephone conversation with Putin on 20 March 2018 might present a window of opportunity in this regard.
The second level is that of experts, who are better positioned to tackle difficult technical questions, especially in the context of a negative political environment. As Colonel General (retired) Victor Esin, former Chief of Staff of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, stated during the 2017 Moscow Non-Proliferation Conference: ‘We need to have military and technical experts to sit down and talk about [the INF Treaty], otherwise we will be limited to only top political consultations.’
With sufficient support from political leadership, technical experts may come up with pragmatic options to resolve the INF Treaty controversy. For example, they could explore confidence-building and transparency measures—possibly beginning with a goodwill gesture of a one-time exchange of inspections (e.g. a US visit to the missile groups at Elanskiy and Kapustin Yar and a Russian visit to the BMD installations in Poland and Romania). The meetings between Russian and US military commanders provide one possible channel for such dialogue.
Finally, Europeans—who would arguably be most directly affected by the collapse of the INF Treaty—should play their part in supporting arms control by vocally advocating a diplomatic solution and speaking out against punitive or militaristic approaches.
 The completion of the Aegis Ashore site in Redzikowo, Poland, was initially due by the end of 2018, but it was postponed in March. See "U.S. Missile Defense Plan Delayed” Arms Control Association 1 April 2018. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-04/news-briefs/us-missile-defense-plan-delayed
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