If deployed in Kaliningrad oblast, an exclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania, Iskander missiles with the range of approximately five hundred kilometers can reach targets throughout nearly all of Poland and the Baltic states—the area that represents one of the possible staging grounds for NATO strikes. Increasing their range by one hundred or even two hundred kilometers will not radically change that situation.
Therefore, it seems logical that if Russia chose to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles it would aim at a qualitative leap—acquiring systems with 1,000-1,500 km range. That would allow Russia to put at risk not only more of the European theater also the additional countries to Russia’ south.
Withdrawal from the INF Treaty will hardly constitute a major challenge, if that treaty stands in the way of a capability that Russian leadership regards as vital for further development of conventional deterrence capability. The withdrawal is likely to enjoy support of the majority of the elite; if Putin introduces such a bill into the parliament, it will be adopted without debate or serious opposition. The U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2003 will provide the necessary pretext: like the George W. Bush administration, Moscow can declare that INF is a leftover from the Cold War, that its continued existence undermines the country’s security (with references to missile programs in countries to the south of Russia), and that it does not intend to develop intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Moreover, the state of the US-Russian relationship today is such that abrogation of an old treaty will hardly worsen that relationship any further, from the Russian leadership’s perspective.
Thus, the case that there are significant Russian violations of the INF Treaty appears weak. As noted above, the RS-26 tests do not represent a violation—at most the use of a legal loophole for reasons of convenience. The story about cruise missile tests is still vague, but the fact that US government was reluctant to classify it as a violation suggests plenty of uncertainty. In the history of US-Soviet and US-Russian arms control there have been dozens of similar cases—both parties have raised concern about the actions of the other. The majority of these concerns remained unresolved for years until they lost relevance. As a rule, these are technical issues that are discussed by technical experts outside public eye. Why, then have allegations about possible violation of the INF Treaty surfaced? The reasons for that are likely to be found in alliance and domestic politics rather than in substance of the arms control process.
Political Aspects: US-Russian Relations and US Domestic Politics
One group which has consistently raised questions about the Iskander’s deployment are the Baltic states, particularly Lithuania, which has tended to cite the deployments as a reason to keep U.S. nuclear gravity bombs in Europe, despite support for their withdrawal from many of the more established members of the alliance. News of the suspicious tests leaked after an alliance meeting in January.
Domestically, a letter by a group of Republican members of the House Armed Service Committee, suggests that Republicans sensed an opportunity in the revelations to push back on administration initiatives in several areas such as the further reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and the Iranian nuclear program.
The story broke soon after the an interim nuclear deal with Iran took effect and President Obama threatened to veto any congressional efforts to impose new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. The Armed Services Committee Republicans have argued that the new agreement will permit Iran to cheat without sufficient penalty and argue that the administration’s behavior with Russia proves their case.
Similarly, Republicans have been highly skeptical of Obama’s 2013 proposal to reduce US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear warheads by another third within the framework of the 2010 New START Treaty—from 1,550 to about 1,000. They have been particularly concerned that Obama might seek to make the reductions in a way that bypasses requirements for Senate approval of treaties.
Ironically , in this concern, they have found a de facto common cause with Russian hardliners. Moscow, has demonstrated very considerable reluctance to engage in reductions beyond those mandated by New START. Any action that undermines the prospect of reductions is bound to be welcomed by the Russian government (publicly it will claim otherwise, of course). Moreover, if the initiative appears to come from the United States, Moscow will gain by being able to shift the blame for absence of progress on nuclear disarmament to the other party.
The news also came as the Senate is considering confirmation of Rose Gottemoeller as the lead U.S. arms control diplomat. Gottemoeller, the lead negotiator for the New START treaty, has been acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international policy for several years. She had been expected to be named permanently to the position. But the price of her confirmation may be a resolution of the INF controversy on terms preferred by the opponents of new reductions—namely, forcing Russia into acknowledging treaty violations in a way likely to further disrupt the administration’s arms-control agenda.
Nikolai Sokov is a Senior Fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation. Miles A. Pomper is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and the former editor of Arms Control Today.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Suvorow. CC BY-SA 3.0.
 Stephan Forss, The Russian Operational-Tactical Missile Iskander Missile System (Helsinki: National Defense University, Department of Strategic and Defense Studies, Series 4, Working Paper No. 42, 2012).