A new round of confrontation between Russia and the West could jeopardize a high-profile arms control treaty that helped to mark the end of the first Cold War. Russia Direct asked experts to make sense of the newest accusations from Washington.

It remains to be seen if U.S.-Russia increasing confrontation will push Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw the 1987 INF Treaty. Photo: AP

Until now, there seemed to be little reason to think that the Ukrainian crisis might bring to an end U.S.-Russian collaboration on nuclear non-proliferation. Yet, with the U.S. blaming Russia for violating a landmark arms control treaty that was signed by President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev near the end of the Cold War, any future collaboration over nuclear arms now faces many challenges.

On July 28, the New York Times reported that Washington blames Russia for testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile. This would mark a violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, according to a senior American official, who revealed the details of a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This discord over the missile test is just another sign of the escalating confrontation between Moscow and Washington over the Ukrainian crisis. Some Western experts are convinced that the violation is “real” and “evident for some time,” according to Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Department

“The U.S. held off criticizing Russia earlier because it was less sure of its conclusions and because it wanted to preserve as much positivity in the relationship as possible,” he told Russia Direct. “However, given the state of relations between Washington and Moscow, it was determined that there is no longer a reason to show such restraint. Yes, this can be a setback to relations, but of course, one cannot ignore non-compliance with arms control treaties either, unless one decides that the treaties have become unimportant.”

Richard Weitz, senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, argues U.S. accusations are hardly likely to hamper U.S.-Russia collaboration over nuclear non-proliferation because this cooperation “continues independently of their arms control stalemate and other disputes.”

“It indicates that even the Obama administration, not inherently hostile to Russia, no longer expects to achieve much arms control with Russia, at least for a while,” he explains. 

At the same time, Columbia University's Robert Legvold warns in his Russia Direct column that “the pressures of the new Russia-West Cold War may push” both U.S. and Russia in the wrong direction, thereby complicating the dispute and bringing into question “the treaty’s integrity.”

“Hence, the question of Russian compliance with the INF treaty was a festering issue that would have been one further complication in U.S.-Russian relations and an additional obstacle to further nuclear arms control had the Ukrainian crisis never occurred,” he wrote. “But, in the context of the crisis, the Obama administration has every incentive to bring it front and center and very little incentive to try to deal with it through quiet diplomacy.”

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, shakes hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after the two leaders signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in Washington, D.C. on December 8, 1987. Photo: AP

In response to U.S. accusations, Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) published a response from Russian arms control pundits, who claim that the U.S. has repeatedly violated and continues to bypass the INF. For example, Major General Midykhat Vildanov, professor at the Academy of Military Sciences, sees Washington as a “regular” violator of the treaty. The U.S. bypassed the INF Treaty, he claims, by testing the Ground Based Interceptor (GBI), a missile defense system intended to destroy strategic ballistic missiles during the mid-phase of their trajectory.

Vildanov referred to the expertise of Yury Solomonov, chief designer of Russia's Topol-M, Yars, and Bulava solid-fuel ICBMs, who agues that  “although this missile [the GBI] theoretically has a surface-to-air role, it is easily modified as a surface-to-surface system.”

What do other American experts and their Russian counterparts think about these claims and counter-claims? Was the Ukrainian crisis used as a pretext to bring them to the forefront? Russia Direct reached out to high-profile experts from Russia and the U.S. to find out.

Mark Kramer, Professor, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies

The INF Treaty, signed in December 1987, was an important early signal of the sweeping changes in Soviet foreign policy under Mikhail Gorbachev, but after the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the treaty lost most of its significance. The intermediate-range missiles it covered had been destroyed on schedule as of mid-1991, and even though the INF Treaty remained in effect after 1991, it was largely forgotten.

The situation changed in early 2007, when Vladimir Putin suddenly announced that Russia would no longer feel itself bound by the INF Treaty. Putin did not immediately renounce the treaty, but General Yury Baluevskyi, who in 2007 was chief of the Russian General Staff, warned that Russia might soon pull out of it.

When tests of two questionable Russian missiles, especially the R-500 [known as the Iskander – Editor’s note], began in 2008, U.S. officials did not initially believe they had clear enough evidence of a Russian violation, but by 2009 the new Obama administration was faced with mounting evidence that Russia was violating the INF Treaty. Because the administration thought it could establish a warm, durable relationship with Russia, it refrained from pressing the issue or declaring Russia to be in violation.

This year, with the Obama administration's earlier hopes of establishing a cordial relationship with Russia in tatters, the administration finally decided it was time to raise the issue more vigorously and more publicly. That is what is happening now. My own view is that it was a mistake for the Obama administration to have waited so long. Russia's apparent non-compliance should have been raised forcefully long ago, and if the Russian authorities did not rectify the problems, the United States should have renounced the INF Treaty.

The treaty, as I indicated, was an important symbol during the final years of the Cold War, but its concrete significance nowadays is nil. The collapse of the treaty will have some transitory symbolic effect, but no more than that. Neither the United States nor Russia will suffer any concrete damage from the scrapping of the treaty.

Alexey Fenenko, a researcher at the Institute of International Security Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an associate professor at Moscow State University

U.S. accusations are rather “virtual” in their nature. First, the Americans named neither the type nor the class of hypothetical Russian ground-based cruise missile being tested. Second, the 1987 INF Treaty doesn’t prohibit testing air-launched cruise missiles as well as their dual-purpose models. Third, the INF Treaty doesn’t forbid conducting scientific research in this field.

Washington’s accusations are an intellectual speculation, along the lines of: “The Russians are probably testing a cruise missile, which, probably, will become (or, probably, not) a grounded-launched missile. Hypothetically, Russia is conducting experiments to make its ICBMs capable of destroying medium-range targets.” Yet, actually, it doesn’t deal with the problem of cruise missiles.

The other thing is that Russian politicians – including then-Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (in 2000), Russian President Vladimir Putin (during his 2007 Munich address) and other high-profile representatives of Russia’s Defense Ministry – have frequently talked about abandoning the INF Treaty. However, they haven’t gone beyond their claims and official statements.

[Amidst the Western-led sanctions], Russia has a lot of leverage in the military-political field to retaliate against the U.S. One of these levers is to abandon the whole system of global stability by leaving non-proliferation treaties, including the INF Treaty.   

In the future, Russia is likely to abandon the INF Treaty. Even now, the possibilities of Russia and the U.S. are not equal. Washington has two allies – France and the United Kingdom, which don’t participate in the INF treaty. Theoretically, nothing prevents them from recreating medium-range ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles that might threaten Russia’s vital centers.

There are two factors that might push Moscow to withdraw from the INF Treaty: First, it is the deployment of U.S. ABMs in Europe; the second factor is the extensive deployment of NATO troops in the region of the Baltic and Black seas, as was indicated from Obama’s speech in Warsaw on June 4.         

Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Brookings Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe, and Director at Brookings Arms Control Initiative

The U.S. government has concluded that Russia has violated the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile. It is difficult from the outside to judge the basis for the U.S. conclusion, because we do not have access to the classified information on which that determination was made.

Still, the decision to declare Russia in violation is a serious one. The administration given the president’s strong personal interest in arms control has nothing to gain by this and would not have announced the conclusion unless it found the evidence of the violation to be compelling.

I believe it would be a mistake to link the announcement to the Ukraine crisis. The administration announced its conclusion in conjunction with the release of the State Department’s annual arms control compliance report, which was already three months overdue. The violation adds another problem issue to the U.S.-Russia agenda.

Whether it endangers the INF treaty remains to be seen. For now, it appears that Washington intends to continue to observe its obligations under the treaty, while calling on Moscow to return to full compliance with the treaty’s terms.

Vladimir Evseev, Director of the Public Policy Research Center

The U.S. claims accusing Russia of violating the 1987 INF are not well grounded. Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) Topol-M or RS-24 Yars can be used as military equipment by some military units dealing with hypersonic missiles, which are capable of managing their flight in the upper layers of the atmosphere (about 60-70 kilometers above the earth). It was the testing of such kind of missiles and equipment that gave the U.S. the reason to blame Moscow for violating the treaty.

However, hypersonic weapons such as ICBM Topol-M cannot be regarded as ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles because they have a different trajectory, height and flight velocity.

Remarkably, such accusations come from Washington right now, when Russia’s finance and banking sectors face Western-led sanctions. All this indicates that it is rather purposeful in order to put political pressure on Russia, not a matter of technical problems.

The excessive tenacity of the U.S. to punish Russia (instead of figuring out the roots of the problem) creates very serious challenges and obstacles in the non-proliferation field. Amidst the deployment of the American anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in Europe and NATO expansion closer to Russian borders, the Russian leadership will have to think not only about leaving the 1987 INF Treaty, but also the 2010 New Start Treaty signed in Prague by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev. I doubt that such a step is in the national interests of the U.S. and their European allies.