It’s Not About Trust
Why Russia's missile mischief shows that the United States needs to think differently about arms control.
The New York Times reported today that the United States this month informed its NATO allies that it had discovered that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which permanently banned Russia and the United States from possessing ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles. Nor, evidently, is this the only such Russian activity along these lines: Bill Gertz reported in October that Russia had flight-tested its RS-26 missile -- which it claims is an intercontinental ballistic missile -- to intermediate ranges. Some regard this as an outright violation of the treaty, although the New York Times reported that "Western officials" consider this to be a "circumvention" rather than a straight violation of the INF Treaty.
The New York Times reported today that the United States this month informed its NATO allies that it had discovered that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which permanently banned Russia and the United States from possessing ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles. Nor, evidently, is this the only such Russian activity along these lines: Bill Gertz reported in October that Russia had flight-tested its RS-26 missile — which it claims is an intercontinental ballistic missile — to intermediate ranges. Some regard this as an outright violation of the treaty, although the New York Times reported that "Western officials" consider this to be a "circumvention" rather than a straight violation of the INF Treaty.
What does all this mean? Well, let’s put it in perspective first. Russia’s apparently rather blatant flouting of the INF Treaty doesn’t jeopardize America’s nuclear deterrent or even really do much to the overall nuclear balance. Moscow already wields nuclear weapons that can hit the United States and also has plenty of nuclear weapons of varying ranges (including intermediate-range air-launched forces) that can hit Europe. Indeed, the capabilities Russia appears to be working on don’t even really increase the threat to the nuclear forces of America’s British and French allies, both of which now rely on submarines at sea for survival and retaliation.
So why should Americans care about what appears to be a violation of a seemingly abstruse arms control agreement from another era, especially a violation that doesn’t really pose a particularly new threat to the U.S. defense posture?
The answer is that we should care because of what it tells us — about Russia, about arms control, and about how we should look at America’s own nuclear deterrent.
First of all, it tells us that Moscow seems to have decided that, when it suits its purposes, it will, if not ignore, then effectively circumvent the legacy arms control architecture inherited from the Cold War. This is interesting, given that Russia apparently at least considered a more open and legally-minded approach to getting out of what it regarded as a nettlesome arms control regime. According to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent memoir, Moscow proposed jointly terminating the INF Treaty to the Bush administration in 2007, but was rebuffed. And, if the Bush administration wasn’t interested, the Obama administration has definitely not been interested in dismantling existing arms control agreements. Evidently, observing Washington’s resistance to ending INF, Moscow has decided simply to circumvent rather than go through the bother of abrogating it. This suggests that, in the future, we can expect Russia will be prepared to, at the very least, play fast and loose with inconvenient arms control agreements rather than withdraw from them (as the United States did in the case of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002).
More broadly, Russian violations and circumventions only lend further strength to growing doubts about Moscow’s reliability as a constructive partner. As demonstrated by the Syrian chemical weapons negotiations, Russia may be willing to work with the United States on specific points when interests overlap, but the higher hopes of the "reset" should certainly be laid to rest for the time being — the current regime in the Kremlin is not one to trust without a good dose of verification. Needless to say, this is unfortunate and should not be taken as a permanent state of affairs; but it nonetheless is the only conclusion that seems prudent about the current government in Moscow.
Beyond bilateral relations, Russia’s activities tell us something about Moscow’s threat perceptions and strategy. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2007 when proposing the termination of the INF Treaty, Russia is building up its ground-launched intermediate missile forces — not so much to deal with the United States and NATO but for threats from points South and East that fall within the 500 to 5,500-kilometer range covered by treaty: namely, China, Iran, and Pakistan. Moreover, while Russia may be intending to use such weapons in conventional variants, it seems reasonable to infer that Moscow expects to have to continue to relying to a significant degree on its nuclear forces in dealing with these unpredictable neighbors — and above all with China. Indeed, especially when coupled with the increasing clamor from top Russian strategic thinkers about the possibility that the PRC’s nuclear forces are much larger than conventional wisdom would allow, one can see these developments as an indirect indicator of rising anxiety in the Kremlin over Beijing.
But Moscow’s actions also speak to more than just the peculiarities of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Rather, they tell us some interesting things about arms control and nuclear deterrence. Above all, Moscow’s behavior shows that arms control agreements — even such cornerstone deals as the INF, which had achieved a near-totemic status in arms-control lore — can’t be seriously relied on for our security. This is doubly so because the INF was probably the most intrusive and exhaustive arms control agreement of the Cold War — perhaps ever. Though it included mind-numbingly detailed provisions for verification and monitoring, it also simply eliminated many of the usual problems by banning a whole class of weapons. So if an agreement that is as long-lasting and as exhaustively elaborated as the INF can be flouted in a period of moderate tension, can we really expect such agreements to hold in periods of far more serious tension, let alone conflict?
It would seem imprudent to expect so. That means arms control is no substitute for deterrence. Ultimately, the United States needs to rely on the credible threat of decisive military power when it makes calculations about security.
But this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t pursue arms control. Quite the contrary, Washington should pursue arms control — but of a different kind than we’ve been led to expect over the last years. Rather than seeing arms control agreements as way-stations on the way to disarmament or as permanent masterworks never to be altered or surpassed, we should see them in a much more limited but practical light: as utilitarian means to shave off the unnecessary sharp edges of military competition and political tensions between countries that have real differences. Arms control agreements aren’t pledges of fidelity; they’re things you negotiate with states you don’t trust — or sometimes even like — to dampen tensions and minimize the chances of unnecessary war due to miscalculation or misperception.
Thus, while the administration needs to hold Moscow to account for its violations, it also shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees: the United States should continue to seek ways to find agreements with Russia that increase its security — for instance, by trying to constrain Moscow’s development of a new heavy intercontinental ballistic missile, or persuading them that American missile defenses are not a reason to put their forces on a hair-trigger alert, and the like. (Note that reducing numbers is not a part of that agenda.)
We can work with potential adversaries to mitigate risks and reduce tensions, but Moscow’s infidelity is another reminder that competition and the threat of conflict is endemic to international relations. Arms control will always be, at most, a useful ancillary aid but never a reliable foundation of security.
Elbridge Colby is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, during which time he served as the lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy and as the principal Pentagon representative in the development of the 2017 National Security Strategy.
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