October 21, 2016

CNAS Press Note: Russia and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Violations

By Elbridge Colby

Washington, October 21 – As the Obama administration confronts Russia over its violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow Elbridge Colby has written a new Press Note, “Dealing with Russia’s Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Violations.”

Please find the full Press Note below:

Two years after first pointing out that Russia was violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a landmark arms control pact from the last days of the Cold War that bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, the administration has finally decided to take the issue to the Treaty’s medium for disputes, a Special Verification Commission (SVC).

In 2014, the Obama administration first publicly stated that it believed Russia was violating the INF Treaty. While official details remain scarce, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that the State Department has said that an unspecified Russian cruise missile violates the agreement.

Russian violation of the Treaty, especially a systematic violation that involved deploying military systems in contravention of the pact’s dictates, is deeply problematic for two reasons. First, if Russia could deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles, it could substantially increase its ability to threaten targets with prompt, precise strikes in Europe among U.S. NATO allies, not only with nuclear weapons but also with conventional warheads. Russia relies heavily on land-based and missile systems, so it could substantially increase its ability to hold all of Europe at risk with such capabilities.

Second, such a violation would indicate not only a Russian lack of interest in arms control and stability measures, but rather also a willingness to violate them, including sub rosa. This would call into question the broader architecture of U.S.-Russian arms control, as well as the plausibility and advisability of further measures. This is especially dangerous given that such arms control and stability measures are becoming more rather than less important in light of the increased chances of crisis and conflict between Russia and the West, as well as the development of many new technologies that may make crisis and escalation management more difficult.

It is therefore encouraging that the administration is going to confront Russia at the SVC, but this is a relatively modest step. The administration’s efforts thus far to bring Russia back into compliance have not succeeded. The United States and its NATO allies should therefore make clearer to Russia that further noncompliance, and especially militarily significant breach of the Treaty, would redound against Russia’s benefit. This means the United States and its allies should be actively exploring the development and deployment of a range of defensive but also strike capabilities to offset Russia’s actions or otherwise increase NATO and the United States’ defense and deterrent positions. It is important to emphasize that U.S. and Allied reactions to Russia’s INF violations do not need to be specifically tailored to deal with those violations; rather, the United States and its allies can and should explore options that improve their overall posture and defensibility.

At the same time, the United States and its NATO allies must hold Russia’s feet to the fire in terms of political accountability. Russia should not be able to violate INF, especially materially, without paying a high political cost, and ultimately by walking away from the Treaty with all the attendant costs to its political position in Europe and elsewhere.

Colby is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at 202-457-9409 or nurwitz@cnas.org.

  • Elbridge Colby