The Cable

As Russia Subverts Missile Treaty, U.S. Looking at New Weapons

Since 1987, Europe has been off limits for medium-range missiles. Russia — and now the United States — seems ready to tear up that detente.

Mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers during a rehearsal of the Victory Day Parade in Moscow on May 5, 2014. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
Mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launchers during a rehearsal of the Victory Day Parade in Moscow on May 5, 2014. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Fueled by increasing concern in Washington that Russia is violating a 30-year-old missile treaty, the United States is considering developing a new ground-launched missile capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, signed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, banned ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The original treaty came after U.S. and Russian missiles were deployed in increasing numbers in Europe, heightening tensions in the waning days of the Cold War.

Today, after years of what U.S. officials say are violations by Russia, the “agreement is under threat,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

“The United States cannot stand still” while the Kremlin continues to develop an intermediate-range missile that violates the treaty, Nauert said. (Russia denies that it is violating the treaty.) Last month, Congress included $58 million in the defense spending bill to begin research and development of a missile that would match the Russian program.

The bill, which sits on president Trump’s desk, would “close the capability gap opened by the Russian violation,” lawmakers wrote.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Friday that the proposed U.S. research program “increases our concerns over the true intentions of the U.S. side” regarding the INF treaty. Russian officials also called for a new round of talks to update the treaty.

U.S. missile R&D itself would not count as a violation of the treaty, experts say. But it is a good hedge in case the decades-old treaty falls by the wayside.

Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Security, said the United States “has to be ready if the treaty goes away, and doing research and development creates leverage if there are a new round of talks.”

Leverage is sorely needed. American officials contend that Russia blatantly violates the treaty, while counting on it to hamstring U.S. preparedness. The United States first formally accused Russia of developing a missile in violation of the INF back in 2014, though U.S. intelligence agencies have said the system had been under development for several years prior.

In March, Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leveled the most specific charges to date, saying the Russian intermediate-range missile had been deployed to an undisclosed area that puts Europe in range, presenting a “risk to most of our facilities in Europe. We believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO.”

That makes some in the Pentagon wary.

“Of course the Russians want to continue to the treaty because they place a limit on our strategic systems, while they continue to build systems that aren’t countable,” a U.S. defense official involved in missile defense issues told Foreign Policy.

Correction, Dec. 8, 2017: Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union at the time of the INF treaty signing in 1987. A previous version of this article mistakenly said he was the president of Russia. He was the president of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991.

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