The US response to Russia’s supposed violation of the INF Treaty is a litmus test for the Trump administration’s approach to arms controls and strategic stability. It will give a clear indication of the Administration’s attitude towards relations with Russia, its NATO allies and to arms control more generally.
The INF Treaty bans the possession, production and flight testing of ground launched cruise missiles (GLCM) with a range of 500 km to 5,500 km. Signed in 1987, it was the first treaty to ban a category of weapons that both the US and Russia had already deployed. It is notable for the fact that it was the first nuclear arms control treaty to impose intrusive monitoring and verification methods, and imposed asymmetric reductions. The ground-breaking treaty is one of the few in place bilaterally between Russia and the US since the end of the Cold War, and its failure could come to symbolise a new age of nuclear tension in Europe.
There have since 2008 been stirrings in Washington around the development of a new missile in the Russian inventory that could break the terms of the INF agreement. This February the New York Times reported that Russia had clearly violated the treaty by actually deploying this new Ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). On the 8th March, at a meeting of the House Armed Service Committee, General Selva confirmed the US belief that Russia had violated the ‘spirit and intent’ of the INF Treaty. Russia has fiercely denied the violation, and counter-accused the US of violating the treaty itself by deploying anti-ballistic missiles as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Russia argues that the EPAA’s MK-41 launchers in Romania and Poland, though used for defensive purposes, could be repurposed to fire offensive missiles banned under the INF Treaty. The intercept missiles could simply be reprogrammed.
Russian unease with the INF Treaty has been growing since the mid-2000s. In 2007 then Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov questioned the treaty on the basis that it applied only to the United States and Russia, but not to other countries deploying similar technologies. The Russians see the treaty is as particularly burdensome to themselves, as it does not limit air-launched or sea-based cruise missiles. The United States could use nuclear-tipped cruise-missiles on Russia from its air forces in western Europe and submarines in the Baltic and Mediterranean. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia lost its strategic buffer and forward deployment and has increasingly placed value in asymmetric strike capabilities.
This latest bout of accusations marks a shift in relations for two reasons. First, Russia has been accused of deploying, rather than developing, the missiles. Second, the claimed violation comes at a time of political transition and heightened tension in eastern Europe.
The Kremlin’s motives to deploy such missiles are more political than purely military. As Ulrich Khûn and Anna Péczeli have noted the deployment of even 50 to 100 of these missiles ‘would not immediately alter the overall military balance between NATO and Russia, given the general conventional superiority of NATO.’ It is more likely that these deployments are intended to test NATO, and create disunity among its member states.
It is here that Russia’s supposed violation may be successful. Broad calls for a robust response have been emanating from Washington. These range from invoking the Special Verification Commission and urging Russian compliance to developing and deploying US GLCMs and a new cruise missile defence system in Europe, or supplying European allies with JASSM-ER and Tomahawk missiles. The Pentagon is set to outline its response strategy shortly, which will no doubt have a strong militaristic element. Yet the response from European partners, ostensibly more directly threatened by any short or medium range missile deployment by Russia, has been far more muted than that in Washington. Is this reflective of a very different perspective within Europe?
At the time of writing, all European partners and NATO had declined to make public comments on any possible violation. The issue was notably absent from the agenda last week at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. When Stoltenberg was pressed on the issue by reporters he merely responded, ‘this was not an issue in the NATO Russia Council so I have nothing to report’, and that the United States had ‘informed’ other members of the violation.
In Eastern Europe, earlier this week a Republican delegation met the foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, where you would expect concern about Russian violations to be greatest. Once again, there was no public mention of the INF Treaty. Discussions focused on increasing rotational presence of US troops.
Notable too is the British response. When pressed, the Ministry of Defence stated that ‘it would be for [the US and Russia] in the first instance to determine any breaches.’ On Friday, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon met with Defense Secretary Mattis. Fallon acknowledged that the INF Treaty was discussed between the two and confirmed that Britain considers the issue ‘needs to be taken forward – not just by the United States but by NATO generally, once we have these violations confirmed.’
Members of Congress have extolled the virtues of NATO, and its importance to responding to the supposed violation. There have been wide calls for NATO ‘unity.’ However, there is a lack of communication across the Atlantic on the issue. At present the United States has not shared intelligence regarding the proposed violation.
On 30th March at the Foreign Affairs Hearing, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Frank Rose stated, ‘our allies are an asymmetric advantage of the United States’ against Russia. At the same hearing, former special advisor for Non-proliferation and Nuclear Security Jon Wofsthal explained that European partners would be unwilling to support any responses without being properly consulted and fully informed. Indeed, many European partners would be anxious about fresh deployments that could further increase tension in Europe. Europe’s silence is not surprising. The situation is complicated by the fact that the INF is a bilateral treaty, but the weapons it monitors primarily endanger non-signatory states.
There appears to be a consensus among members of Congress that if Europeans will not respond that it is the US’ responsibility ‘to lead NATO.’ This view forgets that leadership of such a broad alliance is impossible without taking into account the view of all states concerned. Pontificating on unilateral missile deployments, while complaining that Europe drags its feet will only worsen the situation. In military terms, any failure of the INF effects Europe more directly than it does the United States. It is the US interests to share intelligence with its partners and listen to their suggestions before deciding how to respond.
Dispatches on the Washington Nuclear Front Line are published fortnightly. The last dispatch is available here: The First Trends of Trump’s Nuclear Policy Emerge: 27 March 2017