The Problem With Russia’s Missiles

Why is the United States taking Moscow to task over noncompliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?

Leonidl/Wikimedia Commons
Leonidl/Wikimedia Commons

The State Department’s annual "Compliance Report" is about to drop. According to Michael Gordon at the New York Times, the State Department will accuse the Russians of cheating on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Gordon even has the money sentence:

"The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. treaty not to possess, produce or flight test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles."

Gordon’s story is part of a formal rollout. Secretary of State John Kerry gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a courtesy call on Sunday, and the U.S. Embassy delivered a letter from President Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The decision to accuse Russia in print of violating the 1987 INF Treaty is not about Ukraine. Putin certainly hasn’t done himself any favors in recent months, of course, but American concerns about Russia’s compliance have been building for a long time. Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, began raising the issue of INF compliance with the Russians more than a year ago, in May 2013. After failing to get satisfaction from Moscow, she briefed the NATO Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Committee on the compliance issues in January 2014. As early as this spring, it was clear that there was a possibility of using State’s annual Compliance Report to make public the concerns that U.S. diplomats had expressed in private. I argued in April that, given the mounting evidence, it was time to let the Russians have it.

And now it is that time of year. The Compliance Report is due every year on April 15, but congressionally mandated reports are always late. August is actually pretty early. Recall that the Bush administration didn’t even bother to submit a compliance report during six of the eight years it was in office.

The decision to focus on the R-500 cruise missile is interesting. Russia is actually testing two different systems that raise compliance questions — the R-500 cruise missile and the RS-26 ballistic missile. The Obama administration, according to Gordon, has decided to make an issue of Russia’s R-500 cruise missile, developed for the Iskander tactical missile system. Although this cruise missile has a stated range of 500 kilometers, Russian officials have been clear that they could easily extend the range beyond the 500 km limit imposed by the INF treaty. According to Gordon’s January 2014 story, Gottemoeller told NATO allies that Russia had tested the R-500 to ranges beyond 500 km. (Gordon doesn’t report what the U.S. intelligence community believes the actual range is in either story.)

The Obama administration appears to have focused on the R-500 for two reasons: It is easier to prove and may be easier to solve. First, of the two issues, the R-500 is apparently the more blatant violation. The RS-26, on the other hand, has been referred to as a "circumvention" of the INF in deference to the ambiguity of its status. (Russia asserts that the RS-26 is an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, to be counted under the New START treaty.) So the Obama administration is probably right to start with the more blatant case of cheating.

Second, the White House may believe that Russia is on the verge of moving from testing the prohibited cruise missile to deploying it. Douglas Barrie and Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently noted a Russian article that appears to show an R-500 canister on a deployed Iskander. If Russia is indeed on the verge of deploying large numbers of R-500 cruise missiles, now is the time to start talking about it. It’s much easier to prevent something with arms control than to roll it back. The Obama administration apparently hopes that pressure now will persuade Russia to forego deployment of the new cruise missile. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

But even if the administration is right to start with the R-500, over the long-term the RS-26 might be a bigger threat. A two-stage ballistic missile with multiple nuclear warheads, the RS-26 looks a lot like the SS-20 that prompted the INF discussion in the first place. The R-500 is a serious compliance issue, but it is also probably a conventionally armed missile that may only slightly exceed the range limits set by the INF treaty. The RS-26, on the other hand, is designed to hold Western European capitals at risk of attack with nuclear weapons. While Russia might hint that the RS-26 is intended for China, the reality is that it also seems to designed to threaten NATO forces in Western Europe to deter them from coming to the aid of the alliance’s newer members closer to Russia’s tender embraces.

Even if the R-500 and RS-26 pose a challenge for NATO, it does not make sense for the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty. It isn’t often that I agree with former Bush administration official Stephen Rademaker, but he was exactly right when he testified: "I do not believe the appropriate remedy in this case is for the United States to withdraw from the treaty. Rather, since Russia so clearly wants out, we should make sure that they alone pay the political and diplomatic price of terminating the treaty. But it is also clear that we cannot and should not ignore the violations."

Putting public pressure on Russia is the right strategy, but sometimes the right strategy still falls short. The Russians would like to have intermediate-range nuclear forces, but without taking the political hit for withdrawing from the treaty. Keeping things quiet lets Russia violate the treaty, but without paying any political or diplomatic costs. The Russians hate having to talk about this in public. When Ivo Daalder raised the issue at the Munich Security Conference, Lavrov fumed. Making an issue of Russia’s R-500 forces Moscow to choose between its new cruise missile and its propaganda line about the threat from NATO. Russia might ultimately withdraw from the INF treaty anyway, but at least it will be clear who’s undermining stability and security in Europe.

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. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk