An end to the treaty that ended the cold war? US-Russia spat puts INF at risk

Washington and Moscow accuse each other of violating the landmark nuclear arms treaty severely enough that it could collapse. If it does, the sense of safety that it brought to Europe – the region primarily in range of the weapons the treaty bans – could evaporate as well.

Denis Abramov/Sputnik/AP
The Russian corvette Grad Sviyazhsk shoots a Kalibr cruise missile during the final stage of Russian summer exercises of the Caspian Flotilla's battle groups this year.

The ongoing, acrimonious collapse of US-Russia relations has been mostly sound and fury, so far. But it may be about to start having a real, detrimental effect on the sense of safety that people, especially in Europe, have taken for granted over the past quarter century.

That safety has been provided by the landmark Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987 – known as the deal that ended the cold war. But accusations from both Washington and Moscow that the other is violating it appear to be reaching a breaking point.

If they do, the treaty itself could quickly unravel, leaving Europe once again vulnerable to the short-fused nuclear missile threats that prompted negotiators to ban that entire class of medium-range weapons three decades ago.

“Politics are driving this deterioration. People concerned with strategic stability know the value of this treaty, and the folly of wrecking it,” says Alexander Konovalov, one of the Soviet arms control experts who helped design the INF Treaty in the 1980s and president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow today. “These mutual allegations are mostly about technical issues that could be solved if specialists were able to sit down and talk in a constructive atmosphere. Perhaps the treaty could be updated, but it's still absolutely necessary.”

Negotiations and violations

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan signed the INF Treaty almost exactly 30 years ago, committing themselves to destroying hundreds of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II ballistic missiles. In effect, the deal banned all land-based missiles with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. The two classes of missiles had, between them, threatened to strike anywhere in Europe within 12 minutes – dramatically slashing previous nuclear war warning times of half an hour or more.

Their elimination was greeted in Europe with an enormous sigh of relief. The political momentum it generated contributed greatly to the rapid unwinding of the cold war, and further strategic arms control agreements that followed. The general feeling continues to this day that the shadow of nuclear war in our time has been lifted through peaceful negotiations.

Some hardliners in the Russian military have never liked the INF Treaty, complaining that Mr. Gorbachev gave away too much to the United States in his eagerness to reap the political and economic benefits of effective arms control. For one thing, the Soviet side permitted the US to carve out a huge exception for sea-and-air-launched cruise missiles, which the US already had – and would use repeatedly in subsequent wars – in the form of the Tomahawk cruise missile, while the USSR possessed no such capability.

“Gorbachev committed treason when he signed this treaty, he betrayed the interests of our state,” says Viktor Baranets, a former spokesman for the Russian defense ministry, now military correspondent for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. “The general point of view of Russian military people today is that we don't need to surrender anything more to the Americans. This treaty requires major repairs.”

The US has been alleging Russian violations of the treaty for some time, though it has never before filed a formal complaint. But the Trump administration recently accused the Russians of actually deploying a ground-based cruise missile of intermediate range – a charge which the Russians strenuously deny but would indeed destroy the treaty if true. In early November the US Congress voted $58 million to start development of a medium-range US missile, which would also wreck the deal if the weapon reached testing stage.

“The idea here is we need to send a message to the Russians that they will pay a military price for violation of this treaty,” an unidentified US official is quoted as telling The Wall Street Journal. “We are posturing ourselves to live in a post-INF world ... if that is the world the Russians want.”

The Russians have long accused the US of already maintaining a medium-range weapon of the forbidden type: the Hera, a ballistic missile that is used as a target in testing anti-missile systems.

Confusion over Kalibr?

One major Russian complaint about the INF Treaty, that the US held an asymmetric advantage with its monopoly on sea-launched cruise missiles, suddenly disappeared last year when the Russians unveiled their own version of such a weapon, the Kalibr, by firing massive volleys of them against ISIS targets in Syria from Russian warships in the Caspian Sea.

Some Russian arms control experts suggest that US allegations that Russia was testing a forbidden ground-launched cruise missile may actually relate to the development of the Kalibr, a permitted sea-launched weapon, which the Russians may have – in a technical violation of the treaty – tested on land.

“When you are developing a new missile, it's much more convenient to test it on land,” says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. “It's just more efficient. You can't recover it if you lose it at sea. The American side got this information and began making these sweeping accusations, but without ever going into details.”

The US still declines to spell out its allegations, or even name the Russian missile system that is said to be violating the treaty. That leaves open the possibility that they are talking about something completely different from the Kalibr cruise missile, possibly a new extended-range version of Russia's permitted short-range ballistic missile, the Iskander-M.

Russian arms control experts say that in the current atmosphere of heated mutual recriminations, and in the absence of concerted diplomatic efforts to save or re-work the INF Treaty, the military hardliners on both sides are likely to get their way.

“The termination of this treaty would drag Russia and the West into a far more severe cold war confrontation that we experienced back in the 1980s,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, an arms control specialist with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “It would be totally unacceptable, disastrous for everybody. Europeans would have a hard time forgiving the US if the agreement collapsed. So, it really would be expedient to make some serious diplomatic efforts to restore stability before it's too late.”

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