With the U.S. accusing Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the new Russia-West Cold War puts at risk collaboration between Moscow and Washington on nuclear nonproliferation.

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

The U.S. claim that Russia’s ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), known as the R-500, is a violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) has been brewing for some time. The United States first took note of this missile in 2008, but did not begin to suspect that the missile violated the terms of the treaty until 2011, and did not raise its concerns with the Russian side until 2013. It is unclear why it took three years to make the determination or by what means it was made.

The R-500 may be in violation of the INF because the treaty prohibits testing or deploying cruise or ballistic missiles with flight ranges of more than 500 kilometers and less than 5,500 kilometers. In a similar way, the question of Russian compliance with the INF treaty also arose in connection with the Yars intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was apparently tested at ranges below the treaty’s allowed limits, but, because it has a known range greater than 5,500 kilometers, it comes under the most recent strategic arms limitation treaty, not the INF.

Apparently, the Obama administration initially hoped that the issue could be handled the way the issue of the Krasnoyarsky phased-array radar was handled during the Soviet period. The United States perceived the location of the radar as a violation of the 1972 ABM treaty, and through quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy (and despite the Soviet Union’s self-justifications) persuaded Moscow to dismantle the system in 1987. (In 1989 the Soviet leadership admitted that the radar had been in violation of the ABM agreement)

This time, however, hawks in the U.S. Congress have seized the issue, and, indeed, suggested that Rose Gottemoeller, the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, hid from Congress the fact of Russia’s potential violations and was reluctant to press Moscow on the issue.

Meanwhile, when confronted with Washington’s concerns, the Russian side has denied that it is in violation of the treaty, and, in turn, has accused Washington of contravening the INF treaty by deploying the Aegis missile system in Romania as part of the U.S. European missile defense program, and by using decoys in anti-missile tests that do not meet the terms of the treaty.

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. 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.

To make matters worse, for a long time, senior figures in the Russian national security establishment have resented the constraints imposed on Russia by the INF treaty, because they believe, given Russia’s geostrategic position, they have a need for these weapons that the United States does not. Presumably, they would be happy to see the INF treaty perish. If the United States insists the R-500 is a violation of the agreement, they simply would not care.

By all indications, however, both the Russian and U.S. governments, for the moment, are eager to preserve the arms control frameworks they laboriously constructed over the past thirty years. In the case of the INF treaty, since the proscription is against deploying as well as testing, if some way can be found for the Russian side to retreat from deployment, the dispute can be resolved and the treaty’s integrity preserved. Alas, the pressures of the new Russia-West Cold War may push in the other direction.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.