An Intercontinental Ballistic Missile by any Other Name

Has Russia broken its pledge not to test medium-range nukes? The answer isn't as clear as you might think.



Cheater, cheater, borscht-soup eater
Had a treaty, but couldn’t keep her.
Put a Rubezh on a TEL
That won’t work out so very well.

(With apologies to Mother Goose.)

Since 2011, there has been growing evidence that Russia is violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Arms control can seem arcane — especially when Vladimir Putin is in the process of dismembering Ukraine — but it’s time for Washington to take these allegations seriously.

This 1987 treaty emerged from one of the darkest moments of the Cold War. The two nations ended up with an agreement, instead of lots of intermediate-range nuclear weapons, for reasons that remain valid to this day, even if Mr. Putin seems to have taken leave of his senses. Today, the Russians are alleged to be cheating in not one, but two ways. For the sake of clarity, let’s call one "the circumvention" and the other "the violation" since those are the descriptions used by House Republicans and whoever leaked most of the details to the New York Times’s Michael Gordon in January 2014.

The "circumvention" relates to a new long-range missile that the Russians named the RS-26 Rubezh (Russian for "frontier"). Though the first test failed in September 2011, the Russians have successfully tested this missile three times since. In May 2012, the Rubezh flew from Plesetsk to Kura. That’s 5,800 kilometers — just enough to qualify the missile as an ICBM, which is not prohibited by the INF Treaty. But for the next two tests in October 2012 and June 2013, Russia added multiple warheads (a "new combat payload"), and then flew the missile a much shorter distance, around 2,000 kilometers.

Technically, Russia can count the Rubezh as an ICBM: They tested it once at an ICBM range and counted it under New START. But the subsequent tests and other information suggest the missile’s real range and payload are similar to the SS-20 Saber (known in Russian as the RDS-10 Pioneer) — the weapon that was the whole reason for negotiating an INF ban in the first place. In fact, there are a number of resemblances between the Rubezh and the Pioneer, which was based on the first two-stages of an older ICBM, the SS-16 Sinner. (Yes, Washington called it the Sinner. Moscow called it the Temp-2S.)

Russian officials have said the two-stage Rubezh was developed "on the basis" of another ICBM, the three-stage RS-24 Yars (called the SS-27 Mod 2 in the United States). My educated guess is that the Rubezh is the first two stages of the Yars, just like the Pioneer was the first two stages of the Temp. Even the transporter-erector launchers (TEL) for the Rubezh and the Pioneer are about the same size, each weighing about 80 tons.

The "violation" is harder to explain. The Russians have been developing a new cruise missile for the short-range Iskander missile system (R-500), which is armed with both ballistic and cruise missiles. Russian officials have been only too delighted to point out that they could easily extend the range of the Iskander cruise missile beyond 500 km if not for that pesky INF Treaty. Some critics have conflated — perhaps willfully — Russian statements that it could extend the range with claims that it has.

In his article in the Times, Gordon reported that Russia began testing a new cruise missile in 2008, although the U.S. intelligence community did not conclude that the missile posed a compliance problem until 2011. That’s not surprising, since estimating the range of a cruise missile is difficult enough among friends, and the definition in the INF Treaty is problematic.

The basic problem is that cruise missiles, unlike ballistic missiles, do not fly in a straight line until they run out of fuel. Cruise missiles navigate by "terrain contour matching" — looking down at the ground, using the pattern of changing elevation to match their location with a map stored in an onboard computer. Cruise missiles can spend a quarter of their range zigzagging from side to side. Range also depends on how much of the flight is spent skimming the terrain, which requires more fuel than cruising at altitude.

Moreover, the definition in the INF Treaty doesn’t really help because the United States and Russia have never been able to agree on its meaning. The treaty defines the range of a cruise missile as "the maximum distance which can be covered by the missile in its standard design mode flying until fuel exhaustion, determined by projecting its flight path onto the earth’s sphere from the point of launch to the point of impact." This is the same definition used in all U.S.-Russia arms control treaties including SALT, START, and New START. But as far as I know, Moscow has refused to respond to American efforts to clarify the definition since 1979: "The Soviets responded that the definition of cruise missile range had already been agreed, that no additional clarifications were needed, and that any specific questions arising in the future could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis."

Definition is definition, comrade.

As a result, it’s pretty hard to demonstrate that deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces would violate the 1987 treaty banning the deployment of intermediate range nuclear forces. At times, it seems like this treaty was drafted with all the precision of two winos trying to work out a complex problem in astrophysics. That’s not so much a criticism of the U.S. negotiating team, as it is a basic observation that sitting across the table from the Soviets was not a whole lot of fun for anyone. Both of these problems were well-known when the treaty was ratified, but the Senate and the Reagan administration judged them, correctly in my view, to be manageable, given the immense value of eliminating the entire arsenal of Soviet SS-20s.

Now, however, Russia’s two new missiles offer Moscow precisely the sort of intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles that the INF Treaty was intended to prohibit. Russia has long sought to get out of the 1987 agreement.
China is a nuclear-armed neighbor with intermediate range nuclear forces. And, as you may have noticed, some Russian leaders — cough (Putin) cough — don’t act as though the Cold War ever ended. From this admittedly paranoid perspective, Moscow’s need to threaten Western European capitals with nuclear weapons is arguably greater now that Russia has no allies in which it can forward deploy nuclear forces.  

In January 2005, the Russians raised this issue with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who reportedly told them he didn’t care if they withdrew from the treaty, although the rest of the Bush administration didn’t share that view. Eventually, the Russians began pushing proposals to "globalize" the INF treaty — code for "make China join." Bush and Putin even released a joint statement endorsing a Russian proposal to explore "the possibility of imparting a global character to" the INF treaty, something that got the French out of joint (as they, correctly I think, concluded the Russians were developing a pretext to ditch the agreement).

It seems Moscow has now decided that, rather than taking the hit for leaving the treaty, it will nibble around the edges with a pair of missiles that will ultimately present the United States and its allies with a fait accompli. Westerners who want to look the other way can excuse the cheating as being oriented toward China, or busy themselves with Russophone legalese about the finer points of the 1987 agreement.

To its credit, the Obama administration has apparently raised these issues privately with the Russians for some time — but to no avail.

A handful of Russian intermediate-range nuclear forces do not change the fundamental military balance. NATO can also defend itself conventionally, while the United States, United Kingdom, and France have nuclear arsenals to deter Russia from accompanying an invasion of the Baltics with nuclear strikes on targets in Western Europe.

But Russia’s new nuclear weapons do pose a political problem. Moscow’s ability to threaten capitals throughout NATO represents a challenge to the cohesion of the alliance. Although Western Europe has never been invulnerable to Russian nuclear forces, the elimination of the SS-20 dramatically reduced the threat to Western Europe. Russia’s new missiles put that threat back into place, exacerbating a fundamental uncertainty about the alliance: Is Germany willing to risk Berlin for Riga? Is the Netherlands willing to risk Amsterdam for Tallinn?

This is a political challenge that requires a political response. NATO must assure its new members that Russia’s nuclear forces will not deter Western Europe from meeting its security commitments to the former Warsaw Pact states now sheltering under the North Atlantic Alliance. (Of course, the new NATO members will also complain the alliance only gets upset once Berlin has been threatened, but the North Atlantic Council has always served a little grousing along with the coffee and pastries.)

If this is a political problem more than a military one, NATO must ensure its response will strengthen the political cohesion of the alliance, not break it apart.

The United States and its allies don’t need new intermediate-range nuclear forces — and trying to put new nuclear weapons in Europe would exacerbate political divisions in Europe to Moscow’s delight. Washington doesn’t need nuclear weapons to beat the Russian Army — or it shouldn’t. It ought to be able to mount a conventional defense of its NATO allies, even the Baltics, leaving nuclear weapons, as well as those of the British and French, to deter Russian threats to initiate a nuclear war.

So what should Washington do now?

Elbridge Colby, the Robert M. Gates fellow at the Center for New American Security, has made a series of reasonable proposals, including a Department of Defense study to "establish whether the United States does need or would substantially benefit from INF-barred systems." I would offer a slight amendment — focus such a study, as well as any subsequent research and development, on only conventional missile systems. Moscow is most worried about conventional strike systems, particularly intermediate range systems that could decapitate its leadership. It won’t hurt to remind Moscow that it agreed to the treaty because it feared the U.S. deployment of intermediate range systems that could reach Moscow in only a few minutes. If push comes to shove, conventional missile deployments in Europe are unlikely to prove the propaganda coup for Moscow that U.S. efforts to deploy new weapons in Europe were in the 1980s.

At the same time it studies new conventional systems, the United States needs to pursue arms control measures with Moscow: After all, the two countries did manage to reach an agreement in 1987. Although European countries in NATO initially encouraged arms control with the Soviets to manage domestic political opposition to accepting new U.S. nuclear weapons, NATO’s interests were ultimately best served by a total ban on such systems. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev got a good look at new U.S. missile systems and the Soviet Union’s creaky air defenses, he realized that he could live without the SS-20. "It was like holding a gun to our head," Gorbachev told the Moscow Times. "It increased the risk of nuclear war, even one that was the result of an accident or technical glitch." If Washington can prevent the deployment of the Rubezh and the new Iskander cruise missile through arms control, it needs to be prepared to take "yes" for an answer and refrain from deploying conventionally-armed intermediate-range systems.

So, how do we get Putin to come to his senses? As a first step, it’s time to make Moscow’s cheating a public matter.

Each year the State Department issues a "compliance report" that details whether the United States and other states are complying with their obligations under various arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements; however. the reports have not mentioned the INF treaty for a decade. That should change. State should make very clear what it is the Russians have done, how Washington views that compliance, and whatever excuses the Russians are offering for their sorry behavior.

And since the Russians already know that the State Department thinks they are cheating, it wouldn’t hurt to make this an interagency affair. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel should make clear that these systems are inconsistent with the treaty. While it is too soon for a military response to the Russian programs, having the secretary of defense express concern conveys a certain unity and seriousness of purpose (provided Hagel wears a pair of grown-up socks). The most important message is assuring our allies — especially those in NATO, but also Japan — that the United States is committed to their defense. He should explain
the importance of the INF treaty, including why the Soviets agreed to it the first place, and he should remind Moscow that the collapse of the treaty will open the way to very capable conventionally-armed missiles that Moscow will really, really hate. (Oh, and one more time: do not forget Japan.)

Publicly raising the issue is important both to reassure allies, but also to get Moscow’s attention. The Russians are clearly sensitive to the public disclosure of their activities. At the most recent Munich Security Conference, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about reports that Russia was violating the INF treaty. Lavrov tried to dodge the question, then complained about having the discussion in public. That’s because Russia doesn’t want to pay the cost of having undermined the treaty.

The downside of openly stating that the Russians are not complying with the INF Treaty is that some of Obama’s political opponents — having screamed loudly about Russian cheating for years (decades, for some) — will repeat all the usual partisan nonsense about Benghazi, "manhood" problems, and the like. But avoiding the issue won’t make certain critics more reasonable — you need meds for that — nor will it make the issue go away. Ignoring Russia’s INF cheating only cedes the discussion to the least temperate voices, including those who would rather alarm U.S. allies for their own partisan gain. There may yet be a few Republicans in Congress who will take this opportunity to build a consensus with Obama to stand up to Putin.

Domestic politics or not, Russia’s new missiles pose a political challenge for NATO that should, and can, be met with a vigorous response to shore up the alliance. In the context of other measures to reinforce U.S. security commitments to its NATO allies, especially those closest to Russia, a public effort to address Russian cheating on the INF Treaty will demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about responding in a comprehensive fashion to revanchist Russia on display in Ukraine. It may take years, but sooner or later Moscow will realize that it agreed to the 1987 agreement for a reason.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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