Shadow Government

It’s Not Too Late to Save the INF Treaty

No one should dismiss lightly an agreement that has helped keep the United States and its allies safe for a generation.

A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy building in Moscow on Oct. 22. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy building in Moscow on Oct. 22. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

The United States is on the verge of withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the United States and Russia from having nuclear or conventional ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).

At the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Dec. 4, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Moscow that Washington would give it 60 days to come back into compliance with the agreement, or the United States would begin the formal process of treaty withdrawal.

Losing patience with Russia’s refusal to address legitimate concerns over its violation of the treaty is understandable, but the way Pompeo framed the problem says a great deal about how poorly the Trump administration is managing this sensitive issue. Pompeo told NATO, “the burden falls on Russia to make the necessary changes. Only they can save this treaty.” Having built a rare instance of NATO unity, which for the first time has unanimously stated that it believes Russia is in violation of the INF Treaty, U.S. President Donald Trump’s team seems more intent on using it as an opportunity to berate Russia than to save a valuable treaty that benefits European and global security. While Russia is to blame for its own violations, the United States will suffer just as much as Russia does if the treaty fails, and even more so if the collapse produces more discord than unity within the NATO alliance. By going the extra mile to save the treaty, instead of issuing ultimatums, the Trump administration might even pull out a win for once. Excuse me if I don’t hold my breath.

Russia has violated the INF Treaty, flight-testing the 9M729 cruise missile from both fixed launchers (which are allowed under the treaty) and mobile launchers (which, in this case, are not.).

The INF Treaty allows countries to have 500-kilometer-plus missiles if they test them from fixed launchers, which are useful when developing air- and sea-launched systems. But Russia also flight-tested the missile from a mobile launcher. Because the missile in question had previously flown over 500 kilometers, the United States considers the entire arsenal a violation of the treaty.

Since 2013, the United States has tried to get Russia to reverse course, with no success. Washington is in the right: Countries should abide by their agreements, and both countries benefit if neither is deploying ground-launched systems that have short flight times. Banning them gave leaders in NATO and Russia more time to make decisions in a crisis during the last days of the Cold War. This kind of arms control is something the world needs more of in these times of growing tension.

Russia, either to distract from its own violation or out of genuine concern, has in turn accused the United States of violating the INF Treaty through its missile defense systems in Europe. The NATO Aegis Ashore missile defense system uses the Mk-41 missile launcher. On U.S. Navy ships, the Mk-41 is used to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles with a range within the INF Treaty’s banned span, but because they are sea-based systems they are not prohibited. The United States maintains that the land-based version is not equipped with the software needed to launch offensive missiles and thus is not a violation. While legally true, the fact that the system could be upgraded causes Russia some understandable concern. Although Moscow may not have a strong legal case, there is at very least an issue of optics.

After five years of arguing, it is clear that neither the United States nor Russia is going to get the other the admit it is violating the treaty. Both countries, however, claim that they value it and want to preserve its benefits. It is time to put that goodwill to the test.

This would require both the United States and Russia to go beyond what the treaty mandates. To that end, there are clear technical agreements that could help reassure both sides. Such arrangements would ask the United States and Russia to compromise, but neither would have to admit any violation of the agreement—which might not satisfy everyone, but would have the best chance of saving the treaty.

Russia, for its part, would need to make a 9M729 missile available for inspection. In advance of inspection, the parties would have to agree on the proper technical specifications, including missile and payload capabilities. This combination is key to knowing if the missile can in fact travel more than 500 kilometers. If inspections revealed weapons capable of exceeding that, Russia would need to either modify or eliminate the hardware in question. If once it’s modified the United States found the weapons in compliance, the two sides could develop a future monitoring system, under which 9M729 missiles might be selected at random by the United States for annual inspection to reverify the initial findings.

The United States and NATO, on their end, would need to find ways to reassure Russia that NATO missile defenses in Europe are not and are not going to be equipped with or capable of launching missiles controlled by the INF Treaty. There are various ways to prove this. One would be to provide Russian inspectors with sufficient access to verify that no offensive missiles are deployed alongside NATO launchers. Another would be to modify launchers so that they cannot physically hold Tomahawk missile canisters. A third might be to provide Russia with a number of challenge inspections to reverify the absence of offensive missiles. Lastly, in an extreme case, the United States and NATO could agree to in the future upgrade to launchers that would be incapable of firing offensive missiles.

It is not clear that such offers on the part of Russia or the United States would be enough to save the treaty. But considering these options should be a necessary step in the process of determining the agreement’s future. The United States should immediately offer to send to a neutral city, such as Geneva or Vienna, a team consisting of technical experts from the State Department, the Defense Department, and the White House, led by the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Andrea Thompson, and the undersecretary of defense for policy, John Rood. They should challenge Russia to send a team of counterparts and remain at the table for as long as it takes to develop a viable set of technical steps to address the concerns of both sides, all without asking for or offering any formal statement that the other side has violated the treaty.

From a U.S. perspective, making such an offer and establishing such a process would also make clear that Washington is going the extra mile to save the treaty, and this would test whether Russia is willing to take yes for an answer. If the negotiating teams developed a reasonable set of technical approaches and Russia refused them, then it would be much easier for the United States to withdraw and keep NATO unified in the face of a clear Russian violation. In such a case, even the most ardent supporters of arms control agreements would have to acknowledge that Russia was to blame for the treaty’s collapse.

No one should dismiss lightly an agreement that has helped keep the United States and its allies safe for a generation. Arguments that the United States needs INF Treaty-banned missiles to counter China’s own arsenal remain unconvincing, and Russia and the United States both benefit from the treaty. Keeping these missiles out of Europe is unambiguously good—and remains possible if the Trump administration is prepared to do the hard work to prevent a new arms race.

Jon B. Wolfsthal is the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior advisor at Global Zero. He was U.S. President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He serves on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and helps set the time of the doomsday clock. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal