Moscow and the INF Violations: How to Respond?

At present, most Russians still probably want the regime-led reform rather than regime change. (Credit Image: Bigstock)

2015-06-10 By Richard Weitz

Reversing Russia’s INF violations may take years.

It took Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush seven years to convince the Soviet Union to destroy a radar system that violated the since abandoned 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

Russia ceased complying with the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in 2007 and has yet to end its violations.

Originally most NATO governments seemed to treat the Russian violation issue as a question that Washington and Moscow needed to resolve directly.

Now the violation has become linked with renewed NATO concerns about how the Russian government has been directing nuclear threats and deployments against the alliance.

As with the U.S. drone campaigns and renewed U.S. military operations in Iraq, the administration is finding it difficult to balance the president’s rhetorical support for disarmament and arms control with its projects to counter Russian aggression.

Obama administration officials openly acknowledge that, given the poor security relationship between Russia and the United States, they will not be able to negotiate another major bilateral arms control treaty with Putin before leaving office in January 2017.

The administration is no longer actively seeking Russia’s acceptance of U.S. or NATO missile defense plans and has lost hope of negotiating major reductions in Russia’s large tactical nuclear weapons stockpile.

U.S. officials also believe that chances of securing Senate support for ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty have declined due to decreased congressional support for (or confidence in) the Obama administration’s national security policies.

Indeed, members of Congress are also demanding strong action to counter Russia’s treaty violations and discourage Iran and other countries from also violating arms control treaties.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY16 adopted by the House of Representatives last month, if enacted in the final legislation, would require the White House to notify Congress within 30 days if Russia flight-tests or deploys an INF-prohibited missile and the Intelligence Community and the Defense Department to notify Congress of what they have told NATO about Russia’s violation.

In addition, if Moscow continues its non-compliance with the INF Treaty, the bill would require United States to develop counterforce and countervailing capabilities against Russia; suspend bilateral military-to-military contacts or cooperation; stop funding implementation of the New START accord; and provide the Aegis Ashore BMD sites in Poland and Romania with defenses against cruise missiles.

The Obama administration still hopes that threatening concrete retaliatory measures, along with continued diplomatic efforts and public shaming of Moscow, will induce Russia to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty. However, the administration has recently been publicly considering more assertive responses to Russia’s INF violation but has yet to commit to any specific countermeasure.

The defense Department has developed response options.

During his Senate confirmation hearings in early February 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter indicated that he was inclined to recommend retaliating if Russia failed to convince Washington that it had come back into compliance with the INF treaty.

In his written responses to the questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said that, “Russia’s continued disregard for its international obligations and lack of meaningful engagement on this particular issue require the United States to take actions to protect its interests and security as well as those of its allies and partners.”

In general, Carter added the U.S. response “should continue to remind Russia why the U.S. and Russia signed this treaty in the first place and be designed to bring Russia back into verified compliance with its obligations….[and] must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance our responses will make them less secure than they are today… [as well as] negating any advantage Russia might gain from deploying an INF-prohibited system.”

If Russia does not return to compliance, the United States has several options.

According to Carter, the three main ones are: deploying “active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces.”

The least confrontational option, which would more likely to win NATO backing and thwart any Russian effort to use the issue to stir up tensions between the United States and European countries, is to enhance alliance defenses against Russian cruise missiles.

However, this could present challenges due to the potential difficulty of detecting and intercepting Russian cruise missiles that can reach nearby NATO countries in only a few minutes.

The United States could alternatively deploy its own ground-based cruise or ballistic missiles in Europe to threaten Russian military forces, either any INF-banned missiles Moscow deploys or even other Russian military assets, with an equivalent U.S. system.

The move to generate new “counterforce” capabilities would aim to induce Moscow either to negotiate a compromise or to deny—by being able to destroy the Russian missiles before they could be launched—Moscow any military advantages from violating the treaty.

NATO pursued such a successful “dual-track” policy in the 1980s when the alliance deployed U.S. intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles in several West European countries to induce Moscow to accept a “zero-option” INF Treaty for both U.S. and Russian nuclear systems in Europe.

However, it is unclear which countries would host such weapons.

Those NATO members most inclined to welcome them would be those located closest to Russia, but deploying these land-based systems in proximity to Russian territory would also make them more vulnerable to Russian preemption.

In addition, the administration would prefer to avoid violating the INF Treaty, which bans such ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.

The administration is also considering a “countervailing strategy” designed to increase NATO’s strike capabilities in general in a way that, without matching any new Russian ground-based systems, would negate any adverse effects that might result from Russia’s violating the INF Treaty.

The Treaty permits sea- and air-launched intermediate-range systems even while banning them on the land.

Putting U.S. non-strategic systems aimed at Russia on highly mobile warplanes and warships (such as F-35s, which NATO countries will need in any case to employ US tactical nuclear bombs in the future) would make them less vulnerable and would be seen as less provocative than stationing ground-launched missiles near Russia, where both sides would have incentives to use these missiles first against the other’s strike forces.

Looking ahead, this experience underscores the importance of the “trust but verify” maxim that has always guided U.S. arms control policies.

Also see the following: