Is Russia Violating the INF Treaty?

February 11, 2014 Topic: Arms ControlWeapons InspectionsWMDSecurity Region: Russia

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.

Iskander was created to replace the SS-23 Oka missile system, which was eliminated under the INF Treaty. The decision to eliminate Oka created an uproar from Soviet military officials who claimed that the range of that system was just below 500 km (450-470 km) and that former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had made such a major concession to the United States without their support . Iskander has the same range as Oka, that is, just below five hundred kilometers, and thus does not violate the INF Treaty. However, there are serious suspicions that its range could be increased if necessary: according to a report by the National Defense University of Finland,[1] at the range-optimizing trajectory the ballistic version of Iskander could have the range of six hundred and perhaps even seven hundred kilometers; the R-500 cruise missile, which has been tested to the range of 360 km, is believed to have a maximum range “several times longer.” If, as many suggest, R-500 is an extension of the Granat (SS-N-21) naval surface-to-surface cruise missile, then it could theoretically have a longer range, indeed.

If the cruise missile referred to by the leak, is, indeed, the R-500, the allegations about possible violation can point at several possibilities:

■ The United States could have detected one or more tests conducted to the range in excess of five hundred kilometers;

■ The United States could have made a measurement error—such measurements have to be conducted by national technical means and thus may be insufficiently precise;

■ Finally, American measurements might be based on the calculation of the range-optimizing trajectory while the Russian data proceeds from the actual operational trajectory, which includes two-dimensional maneuvers to avoid detection and interception by missile defense systems (the operational range could then be below five hundred kilometers while the range-optimizing trajectory could be greater).

In any of these cases, the excess range (above five hundred kilometers) would likely be small and have little or no strategic difference. In that case, the R-500 controversy will likely end up as one of more than a dozen of unresolved implementation issues, which are an unavoidable element of the arms control and reduction process. Indeed, Russia has its own share of complaints about the U.S. record.

There are also a few less likely options. The test, for example could have been of SS-N-21 Granat. Available information suggests that these sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) have been withdrawn from submarines and are stored on shore. At the same time, Russian military regularly tests old, Soviet-produced weapons systems to confirm that they can perform up to specifications. For a variety of reasons, it might be convenient to launch it from land rather from a naval platform. There is also a joint Russian-Indian cruise missile project, BrahMos II, which is intended for a variety of platforms, including on land, but this work is still in early stages.

Or Russia could have tested a new GLCM system with a range well above the five hundred kilometer limit. A full assessment of the strategic and arms control implications of such a system would be difficult to gauge without at least elementary information. Yet, the fact that the State Department has refrained from classifying this case as a violation and instead insisted it was a concern that requires additional assessment and consultations, suggests that a new long-range GLCM (i.e., well above five hundred kilometers) unlikely. Meanwhile, an assessment of Russian arms control and strategic behavior indicates that is unlikely Russia would cheat on the agreement to increase the missile’s range by a mere one hundred or so kilometers.

Arms Control Aspects: The Attitude Toward the INF Treaty in Russia

Opposition to the INF Treaty on part of many influential figures among Russia’s decision-making elite is well known. In 2005, Sergey Ivanov, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and at the time the Minister of Defense, raised the prospect of Russian withdrawal from the INF treaty with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; an ensuing debate in Moscow concluded with a decision not to withdraw, but the idea resurfaces from time to time. The main justification is the development of intermediate-range missiles in countries to the south of Russia—China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, and others. One can say that the fate of the INF Treaty in Russia continues to hang on a very thin thread.

Some have suggested that Russian coolness to the INF Treaty can explain an attempt to quietly circumvent or even violate it. Rather, the opposite is more likely: if Moscow decides the INF Treaty is in the way of R&D programs it considers vital, it will hardly hesitate to withdraw.

At the heart of Russian security strategy is deterring the possible use of high-precision conventional weapons (such as Navy Tomahawk missiles) by the United States and NATO along the lines of wars in Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere others over the last decade and a half. Russia’s 2000 Military Doctrine relied on limited use of nuclear weapons against airbases and command and control centers to counter that perceived threat. Reliance on nuclear weapons, however, has been from the very beginning regarded as a stopgap measure until the country develops a modern conventional-deterrence capability. Iskanders appear to fill one of the gaps in such conventional capability (there has been no evidence that Russia has tested these missiles for nuclear warheads, although theoretically this remains a possibility) and in this sense play a vital role in covering a range of potential targets without the threat of a nuclear strike.