Russia's Missile Gamble: Is the INF Treaty Dead?

2012 inauguration of Vladimir Putin.

Russia's intervention in Syria has provided Putin with a laboratory to test his country's cruise missiles.

Last month, the New York Times reported that Russia had secretly deployed two battalions of ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty). In the wake of this revelation, much has been written about the future of the INF Treaty, and how the United States should respond militarily and diplomatically to Russia’s violation.

We must understand that Moscow will continue to cheat on the INF Treaty, so it is important to explore the root causes of Russian misbehavior. Russian president Vladimir Putin has decided to disregard the INF Treaty due to China’s growing military strength and Russia’s own military doctrine. Furthermore, Russia violating the treaty helps Putin fulfill his long-term goal of weakening NATO.

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by the United States and the Soviet Union, bans ground-launched missiles with a range capability between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. But over the last decade, Russia has made it clear that it perceives the INF Treaty to be an unfair deal. Moscow’s primary argument is that the treaty is flawed because it has only been signed by the United States and Russia, thus, Russia’s other strategic rivals, namely China, are not constrained by the INF Treaty’s limitations on missile technology. Consequently, China has made considerable investments in intermediate-range missiles.

Russia believes the Chinese missile battalions that threaten U.S. bases in East Asia could easily be used against targets in eastern Russia. Moscow-Beijing relations may be warmer than those between Moscow and Washington, but contemporary Sino-Russian history is littered with long and bloody conflicts. Only in 2005 did the two neighbors resolve a border dispute in outer Manchuria that claimed hundreds of lives during the Cold War.

Further, an analysis of Russian military doctrine suggests that its military considers cruise missiles game-changing tools of modern warfare. Accordingly, Moscow seeks to develop asymmetric nuclear capabilities. Ground-launched cruise missiles are difficult to monitor, can be armed with nuclear weapons and evade Western missile defense. Russia has studied the U.S. military’s successful use of missile technology in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo, and seeks to replicate those successes.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has provided a laboratory to test cruise missiles, and the results have proved the efficacy of those missiles. Arms-control expert Jeffrey Lewis noted that Russia's sea-launched cruise missiles that struck targets in Syria in 2015 were similar to the new treaty-violating ground-launched cruise missiles. Those strikes were conducted to demonstrate the end of the U.S. monopoly on cruise missiles and Russia’s ability to strike targets from afar without incurring casualties. In forthcoming conflicts, Moscow will place increasing value on the capabilities of the new cruise missiles, given the intractable chaos in the Middle East. Also, it is possible, as resentment towards Russia grows amongst post-Soviet states, especially ones with significant Muslim populations, that the missiles could be used in central Asia. Going forward, these ground-launched cruise missiles will be a key asset in fighting limited war.