Is Russia Violating the INF Treaty?

A technical and political analysis.

Is Russia violating the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty? Press reports have suggested that this is the case, and top Republican legislators are demanding that it act. "We believe it is imperative that Russian officials not be permitted to believe they stand to gain from a material breach of this or any other treaty”—so wrote House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

Such allegations create a highly challenging situation. They will likely further worsen the bilateral US-Russian relationship, which is already at a low point; they are bound to further weaken the prospects of additional reductions of nuclear weapons; and they could complicate President Obama’s efforts to win congressional support for his Iran policy and a key arms control nominee.

There are two allegations. The first concerns the new Yars (RS-26) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which was apparently launched more than once at a distance below the upper limit of the INF treaty (The INF Treaty banned all US and Soviet/Russian land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km). While these tests can cause concern, they do not constitute a violation: RS-26 is, without doubt, a strategic missile (i.e., with a range greater than 5,500 km), and there are no provisions in any existing treaty that prohibit tests to the range below the maximum. The flight tests in question were apparently to assess the defense penetration capabilities of the new missile and thus used the Sary Shagan test range, which specializes in missile defense issues. The second allegation, which has become public recently, concerns an unidentified ground-launched cruise missile. The US Government has reportedly raised these tests with the Russians a number of times, but they have termed it a nonissue and refused to respond further; on January 17, 2014 the United States informed its NATO allies about the concern. A State Department spokesperson clarified, however, that the case was still under review and had not yet been classified as a violation.

The issue of INF compliance encompasses three separate, but closely related strands. One is technical—the substance of allegations, the properties of the missiles in question, and verification issues. Another relates to arms control and strategic concerns—how the INF treaty provisions fit or don’t fit into the Russian national-security strategy. The third is politics—the reasons why allegations about treaty noncompliance continue to surface in public debate and the likely consequences for US foreign policy.

Technical Aspects: The Nature of Concern

The technical issues are a complex maze of engineering, military and legal details. As noted above, Russian tests of the RS-26 ICBM do not represent a violation: nothing in any existing arms-control treaty prohibits tests at reduced ranges. The absence of a lower limit on flight tests of strategic weapons is a heritage of Cold War approaches to arms control: during that time, parties were mostly concerned about maximum capability of weapons systems, be it range or the number of warheads that could be placed on delivery vehicles. There is also a technical reason—it is impossible to prevent failed launches, which could be classified as violations if a minimum distance for test flights is established.

The situation with the new allegation, that of testing a new ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with to an intermediate range (the INF Treaty bans land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km) is more difficult to assess because no tangible details have been publicly revealed. Ballistic missiles which often employ similar rockets to those used for space programs travel a curved trajectory, ascending using their fuel then returning to earth because of gravity; cruise missiles are guided missiles which use fuel throughout their flights and are akin to aerial torpedoes . One likely candidate for the role of the suspicious cruise missile is the R-500, the cruise missile associated with the Iskander system, which was first developed with a ballistic missile.

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