Enough Is Enough: Why the U.S. Must Address Russia’s Violations of the INF Treaty

Moscow - Russia - 07/05/2017 - Russian army S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile system rehearse before the World War II anniversary in Moscow. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty is in jeopardy. Here is what America should do to preserve it.

The future of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty is in jeopardy. Reports of a Russian deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) threaten to undermine the Treaty—one that not only eliminated an entire class of weapons, but has also proved instrumental in providing global nuclear security and the basis for several strategic arms agreements between the United States and Russia.

The U.S. Congress recently reached a compromise between both of their chambers’ versions of the the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), deciding to allocate $58 million to “counter Russia’s violation of the Treaty, including for research and development of a U.S. ground-launched cruise missile system.” While the development of this missile is in compliance of the treaty, it would undoubtedly be interpreted as a provocation by the Russians and could lead to the collapse of the treaty.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty prohibits the development, testing or possession of ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500–5500 km and provides unprecedented intrusive inspections. Russia, according to U.S. intelligence reports, has in recent years developed and deployed dozens of GLCMs dangerously close to European borders. The survival of the treaty is at stake, posing a threat to American security interests and NATO allies.

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Russia’s violation of the treaty has received wide attention in the media and has been the subject of comments from the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul Selva. He testified to Congress in March 2017 that the U.S. military believes that “the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.” General Selva is the highest-ranking U.S. official to go on record to explicitly address Russia’s violations. Furthermore, lawmakers, including Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), introduced a bill that would declare Russia in “material breach” of the treaty. If passed, this bill would be the first step toward withdrawing from the treaty.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s flagrant disregard for the integrity of the treaty is destabilizing to global security. Unlike his predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin has exhibited an unwillingness to negotiate or even acknowledge his country’s potential violations of the treaty’s framework. In fact, Putin denies Russia is breaking the agreement and argues that the United States is breaching the agreement by placing a missile defense launch system in Europe that he claims can be used to fire cruise missiles.

The current political landscape is very different than 1987 when the Treaty was negotiated—incentivizing the Russians to come to the table without deploying new nuclear weapons or escalating tensions will be a political and diplomatic test.

The best way for the United States to deal with this issue is through diplomacy. The Trump administration must engage in direct talks with the Russians to encourage them to reenter compliance with the treaty once again. Such an effort though would include a careful declaration of Russia’s treaty violations. While this could have unforeseen repercussions, the consequences of inaction regarding this issue would escalate U.S.-Russian tensions further and make the world a substantially less safe place.