As the U.S. continues to accuse the Kremlin of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a new arms race between Moscow and Washington looms on the horizon.
Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigu, president Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan (L-R center), presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Vladimir Putin of Russia (R-L center) visit the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / Russian presidential press service / TASS
Speaking at a conference on nuclear weapons and international security in Colorado Springs on Thursday, April 16, Assistant Secretary of State Frank Rose stated that the U.S. would retaliate if Russia did not stop violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in Washington in 1987.
It is by no means the first such statement by the U.S. government. The finger pointing at Moscow began before the Ukraine crisis — for instance, in December 2013 when Iskander missile systems were deployed to the Kaliningrad region.
Moscow’s response to Rose’s statement followed the next day. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that America had no proof that Russia was in violation of the treaty. The Russian Foreign Ministry also underscored that in March of this year it had invited the Americans to back up their statements with facts, which they declined to do.
The agreement on the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear forces is considered a cornerstone of security in the modern world. However, over the 27 years since its signing, the geopolitical situation in Europe and the world has changed drastically.
How to destroy each other and the world in several minutes
The main objective of Cold War strategists was to develop an effective nuclear strike against the enemy, while avoiding, or at least minimizing, retaliation. It was overly ambitious. The first concepts of nuclear war foresaw massive air raids into enemy territory with the purpose of annihilating cities and knocking out military installations.
Both sides knew that the flight time was long enough to make retaliation almost inevitable. Intercontinental missiles are more effective, but if deployed, the opponent would still have time to evacuate its government and order a response.
But missile weapons and guidance systems were improving. As early as 1973, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger proposed the concept of a so-called “counter-elite” strike. It consisted of deploying intermediate and shorter-range missiles from so-called forward-based launchers. At just 6-8 minutes, the flight time would not allow the enemy to evacuate its government or activate similar systems, and ideally, not even permit the command for a retaliatory strike to be given.
The concept was purely offensive: who attacks first, wins. Although the sides were similarly matched, initially the United States had a slight advantage, since the Soviet Union relied primarily on silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
However, the parity did not last long. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union had deployed around 300 RSD-10 Pioneer missile systems (NATO reporting name: SS-20) on its western borders, capable of destroying the Alliance’s entire European infrastructure in just a few minutes, including, chiefly, all major ports, which would not give the U.S. time to come to the aid of its allies. In response, NATO took the decision in 1983 to site 572 Pershing-2 missiles in Europe.
As a result, by the early 1980s a situation had developed in which nuclear weapons had morphed from being a deterrent (the concept of “inevitable retaliation”) into an offensive strategy (the concept of “winner strikes first”). Naturally, the situation had to be resolved.
The first talks on limiting nuclear weapons in Europe commenced in October 1980, but to little avail. In exchange for Moscow’s withdrawal and elimination of its Pioneer missiles, Washington was prepared only to remove its missiles from European soil.
Moreover, the fact that America’s NATO allies France and the UK had their own shorter- and medium-range missiles was not considered. Soviet proposals for the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and the elimination of French and British medium-range missiles were rejected by Washington under the pretext of the Warsaw Pact countries’ superior conventional weapons.
In 1983, following a statement by the White House on the commencement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program, the situation deteriorated even further. According to Soviet military forecasts, a fully operational SDI (known informally as “Star Wars”) would be able to destroy intercontinental missiles in the boost phase, significantly undermining the Soviets’ strike capacity. That meant that for Moscow, any negotiations on the elimination of INF were now dependent on America’s scrapping of SDI.
The INF Treaty: How to save the world from nuclear disaster
The Kremlin softened its stance only after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The first suggestion was to relocate Europe-based U.S. missiles to North America, and Soviet systems to a position beyond the Urals. But that sparked protests in Japan and China. Finally, December 8, 1987, saw the signing of the Washington Treaty on the Elimination of INF, which entered into force on July 1, 1988.
The agreement clearly defined the terms “Ground-Launched Ballistic Missile” (GLBM) and “Ground-Launched Cruise Missile” (GLCM), as well as the terms “shorter-range missile” (range 500-1,000 km) and “medium-range missile” (1,000-5,500 km).
Under the treaty, the United States destroyed its Pershing-1A, Pershing-2 and BGM-109G, and the Soviet Union its RSD-10, R-12, R-14, OTR-22 and OTR-23 (NATO reporting names: SS-20, SS-4, SS-5, SS-12, SS-23) missiles. Launchers were also dismantled, save for 35 units intended for research purposes. The OTR-23 Oka was not typically classified as a shorter-range missile, since its radius of destruction was only 400 km (approximately 250 miles). However, due to its high-tech specifications and near impossibility of intercepting it, U.S. negotiators managed to get it included in the list slated for destruction.
What problems the INF failed to resolve
Nevertheless, many issues remained unsolved. First, the treaty did not take into account the presence of INF in Britain and France; second, both the U.S. and Soviet fleets retained such missile systems; and third, it was not adaptable to the changing international climate.
It is no trivial matter that over the 25 years since the signing of the Washington INF Treaty, many countries have armed themselves, some of which border Russia. To date, Iran, China, North Korea, India and Pakistan have successfully tested similar missiles, and all save for Iran have nuclear weapons.
Furthermore, the deployment of aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Russia’s borders has virtually nullified all the benefits of the INF Treaty from Moscow’s vantage point. U.S. aircraft could fly from bases in Lithuania, Estonia and Poland to Russia’s largest cities in 15-20 minutes — not that much longer than the flight time of the scrapped missiles.
Therefore, since 2007 Moscow has described the INF Treaty as an ineffective tool in the field of international security. Then Commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces Nikolai Solovtsov openly stated that Russia was ready to resume making these types of missiles.
What is more, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in talks with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in October 2007, noted that the INF Treaty could only retain its significance if acceded to by other powers in possession of such weapons.
Will Russia resume production of INF?
Most Russian military experts assert that resuming production of INF weapons is the only symmetric response available to Moscow in light of NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s borders and development of a missile defense complex in Europe. However, significant investment will be required, and the infrastructure for their production is sorely lacking.
That said, Russia does have the engineering base and certain new technologies, but its withdrawal from the Washington Treaty and INF rearmament effectively implies a return to the arms race and a change in Russia’s military doctrine, which would henceforth include a preventive massive nuclear strike.
Indeed, as already mentioned, these types of missiles are intended primarily for such purpose. The Kremlin’s desire to avoid such extreme measures is clear from the numerous proposals issued by the Russian authorities to revise the INF Treaty and expand the list of signatories, which, regrettably, the West chooses to ignore.
The INF Treaty is certainly in need of revision. The issue should be considered within the framework of reducing the military tension in Europe and the world as a whole (suffice it to recall the smoldering Indo-Pakistani conflict).
NATO’s attempts to circumvent the Washington INF Treaty are producing a counter response from Russia, when what humanity needs is a new integrated security system in which nuclear weapons and their means of delivery are not regarded as offensive weapons. Deterrent status is sufficient. After all, there would be few winners from a nuclear war, and the most likely loser would be the entire human race.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.