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by David T. Jones

For more than a quarter century—actually 27 years—the INF Treaty has been regarded as a text book case of successful arms control negotiation. The Treaty (technically Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles) is a pivotal success in having addressed an existential challenge between initially intractable opponents.

Some Background

In a thumbnail sketch, the U.S.-NATO Alliance responded to massive Soviet deployments of intermediate range SS-20 ballistic missiles in the late 1970s-early 1980s with counter-deployments of U.S. Pershing ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMS). When agreeing to such U.S. deployments at a combined Defense and Foreign Ministers meeting in December 1979, however, the Alliance also required Washington to negotiate with Moscow under the hypothesis that the Soviets withdraw their SS-20s and hence negate the need for U.S. missile deployments. Thus the aphorism of the “dual track decision,” postulating negotiations and deployments.

For Moscow, the proposal was risible, essentially a offer to trade a bucket of diamonds for a bucket of ashes, and Soviet-U.S. negotiations in Geneva were ritualized shadow boxing until the U.S. could demonstrate (and the Alliance accept) on the ground missile deployments. Ultimately, the U.S. based missiles in the UK, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands, but only after each basing country fought an election at least partly based on opposition (stoked by Moscow) to any deployments. Failure to agree to U.S. deployments would have broken the NATO Alliance, a key Soviet objective of the original SS-20 deployments. Consequently, the period was characterized by intensive, persistent consultation within NATO and with every NATO capital individually and public and private reassurance from Washington to NATO capitals and publics—a casebook classic of effective intra-Alliance negotiations and public relations diplomacy which generated and cemented Alliance solidarity.

Following our successful deployments and the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev, who replaced the revolving door sequence of on-their-deathbeds septuagenarian leaders, Moscow recalculated its options. INF deployments did not fit the reset that Gorbachev was projecting for Soviet foreign policy. It was the era of glasnost and perestroika, and SS-20s didn’t equate with propaganda touting a common European homeland.

It is quietly recognized that without Gorbachev, there would have been no INF Treaty—or certainly not one as comprehensive and as far reaching as ultimately negotiated. Nevertheless, the West was justifiably skeptical initially about Gorbachev’s intentions, as we had in fact never reached an agreement with the USSR that had endured. And, unsurprisingly, there were significant elements of the Alliance and USG politico-military spectrum that, having endured the political pain of fighting for the deployments and cognizant of their military capabilities, were loath to eliminate them. Still, after a variety of back and forth Treaty proposals, hypothesizing inter alia a residual force, Washington and Moscow agreed to eliminate all SS-20s, and subsequently also agreed to eliminate all shorter range missiles. The consequence was agreement to destroy all ground launched missiles in the 500 to 5,500 kilometer range band. The total elimination decision vastly simplified the inspection/verification regime epitomized by President Reagan’s aphorism “Trust but verify.”

The subsequent inspection/verification arrangement was unprecedented in complexity and intrusiveness, including inspections to eliminate possible cheating scenarios, e.g., producing SS-20s in the guise of SS-25s.

Agreement was epitomized by the iconic photo of 8 December 1987 with Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev signing the Treaty in Washington.

The staged sequences of inspections and verification of destroyed missiles worked smoothly with the last of the 2,692 missiles eliminated in June 1991 and the conclusion in May 2001 of inspection regimes in the Soviet Union, the European basing countries, and the United States.

Some Foreground

So all’s well that ends well? Unfortunately, not.

The INF Treaty was always potentially hostage to political and technological evolution. It depended, at least somewhat, on continuation of missile development and deployments that closely maintained 1987 levels. Or at least on the perception that these balances had not changed significantly. It depended on maintaining substantial strategic missile numbers (with the Soviets/Russians implicitly recognizing that you can always “shoot short” if you want to cover targets in the INF target bands). And  it depended most of all on Russian leadership with a continuing commitment to arms control generally and the INF Treaty specifically.

All of these requirements have eroded during a quarter century.

Most obviously, a number of countries have developed INF range missiles; specifically, they are part of the inventory of China, North Korea, India, and Pakistan. Others, such as Israel and Iran, are arguably in that category. Although China also has strategic range missiles, its INF missiles remain a useful part of its defense/security array.

The substantial reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic missile forces, through the START Treaties, while arms control virtuous in their own right, may well have left Moscow less confident that its remaining forces can cover all potential/prospective enemies on its borders. INF systems, particularly cruise missiles, are cheaper than strategic ballistic systems; it could be tempting for the Russians to investigate the margins of INF ranges.

And Putin is no Gorbachev. Indeed, Putin seems to regard Gorbachev as a cowardly weakling, who presided over the greatest Russian national disaster of the 20th century by permitting the USSR to disintegrate into shard states. Putin has many objectives,  and restoring Soviet greatness is certainly one of them. And he has, therefore,  no special incentive to preserve Gorbachev’s benchmark agreement: the INF Treaty. For him, it is a matter of convenience rather than conviction that the Treaty should be retained.

The groundwork has been laid for INF Treaty violations.

Thus for well over a year, we have been seeing nonspecific but ostensibly authoritative reports in the media that the Russians have violated the INF Treaty. Some of the commentary has been from conservative sources that have no love for Russians of any ilk and are happy to embarrass the Obama administration with intimations that it is weak on dealing with Moscow. Historically, we have complained regularly about violations of our assorted arms control agreements with Moscow. The current reports are carefully vague, but include information to the effect that USG officials have brought the purported violations to Russian attention—and the Russians have flatly denied such. We have also briefed NATO allies on our concerns, but to no discernible Alliance public reaction (certainly no “viewing with alarm”).

In July 2014 the United States formally declared Russia to be in violation of the INF Treaty by flight-testing a proscribed GLCM of INF range and then included this charge in the annual arms control compliance report. We called for consultations; the Russians have denied the missile is a violation and claimed it to be a SLCM.

What is the real nature of the violations? Again, vague, but presumably more technical than blatant. The Russians are not deploying INF range, tested, ballistic or cruise missiles along their borders. There is no equivalent, not even a scintilla of such, to the threat Moscow mounted in the mid-1970s when the Soviets were deploying SS-20s by the score (and retaining ostensibly antiquated SS-4 and SS-5 systems that the SS-20s were supposedly replacing). These SS-20 deployments were clearly designed to intimidate Alliance members and throw into question USG commitment to European defense.

Another element of the current rumor stream implies that the Russians have designed and constructed a ground based cruise missile whose parameters indicate that it has INF range—but not tested it at INF ranges. Or that what they are testing has been designated a SLCM. Perhaps, one could view it as the equivalent of noting that a colleague has mounted a Maserati engine in a Toyota. An observer knows/knows that the vehicle is capable of  191 mph, but it has only been driven within the speed limits. The owner professes respect for the legal speed limit constraints but says that how he builds his cars is none of your business.

So What to Do?

Do Nothing. Easy, simple, low key. It is a far cry from determining there has been a violation of the Treaty (subject to explanation and redress) to withdrawing from the Treaty. After all, the purported violation(s) of the Treaty are not blatant. There has been no public U.S. hue-and-cry over Russian action and no military or political imperative to take action. Even though “reset” has palatably failed, we have larger concerns in play with Moscow ranging from thwarting further aggression in Ukraine to orchestrating withdrawal Afghanistan to derailing the Iranian nuclear weapons program to riding Russian rockets to the international space station. If not completely looking the other way regarding their INF actions, direct confrontation may be counterproductive. The Russians may still be amenable to negotiation and revision; it would not be the first time that we’ve struggled with differences of interpretation of elements of our bilateral agreements. Although Moscow-Putin has only a nominal commitment to the Treaty and could withdraw from its restrictions, it is useful for them to maintain it and avoid roiling relations with Europeans and Asians who welcomed the Treaty and still view it as a useful limitation of Russian power.

Doing nothing plays soft ball when the Russians appear to be playing hard ball. Announced 2010 Russian military strategy of early nuclear use to compensate for perceived conventional force weakness while the United States has raised its nuclear threshold for strategic deterrence can appear to be weakness.

Withdraw from the Treaty. Although of “unlimited duration,” the INF Treaty, as is the case from all treaties, permits parties to withdraw from it. Article XV in boilerplate language permits either Party to exercise its “national sovereignty” and claim that “extraordinary events… have jeopardized its supreme interests.” And then give six months notice announcing its withdrawal.

One could argue that this would be the clean, clear way to end an agreement that is no longer serving USG interests in constraining Russian action on INF weapons. Of course, USG ability to convince anyone that Russian violations are of such dimension as to justify terminating the Treaty is questionable. To put it politely, Washington’s “street cred” on foreign affairs is not notably high. We would appear as if we were looking for a fight to distract from more proximate foreign policy failures.

And, such action, minus overwhelming proof of Russian violations, would simply free Moscow to do openly what we believe it is now doing covertly. Moreover, there is simply no sense of Russian threat in the United States or in Europe. Russian ICBMs could still devastate the United States, but we no longer believe such a threat is credible. Europeans do not believe Russian action in Ukraine and other Putinesque nibbles along the Russian borders are existentially threatening. The Russian army in Ukraine is not the 1988 Soviet Red Army whose ominous tank armies left a generation of European/Alliance armed forces cognizant they might have to fight outnumbered and win or resort to nuclear war.

Parallel the Russian INF Activity. In other words, dust off the Pershing II missile blueprints, redesign it as the “Eisenhower” and provide the missile with engines that will easily handle INF ranges without testing at those distances. The evolution of inertial guidance/satellite directed targeting makes it unnecessary to do testing into INF ranges. We already have air and sea based cruise missiles that could rapidly be deployed on land should such prove of interest to us.

This approach need not be publicly announced but rather privately communicated to Moscow and to key NATO allies. U.S. media will certainly note (acting on adroit leaks) what we are doing. Initially, at least such design experiments need not be particularly costly, which is not a trivial point given egregious defense budget constraints.

Separately, to deflect the ritualistic charges from the European Left that once again the USG is warmongering, we should implement persistent consultations within the Alliance. You simply cannot consult too often with NATO, and members incorporated into the Alliance since the USSR collapse need special attention and stroking. Indeed, with the most vital and influential Alliance members (UK, Germany, France, Poland), we should provide high level, highly classified briefings detailing the precise nature of our INF violation concerns. If not obtaining agreement, we would at least get  some credit for the consultations.

Augment Theater Air Defense in Europe. Following Obama’s election, part of our “reset” with Russia was de facto cancellation of prospective air defense plans for Poland and Czech Republic. These efforts were relatively far advanced under the Bush administration with proposals to Moscow that they could share in the effort designed to counter projected Iranian missile threats. Moscow went ballistic (so to speak) over the proposals, and they were shelved as a sop to “reset.” It is not impossible to recreate the designs—or perhaps simply outsource them to Tel Aviv, encouraging the Israelis to offer Iron Dome hardware and expertise to former Warsaw Pact members, now NATO allies, on the Russian periphery.

Try to Convince Key Europeans of Russian Violations. This will be a hard sell—and probably one not worth trying to make. Europeans do not believe they are threatened by Moscow. If they were thinking of history at all this past year, it was to contemplate the origins of World War I on its centennial; they saw no military parallels in 2014.

Europeans are at their outer limits of confrontation by acceding to economic sanctions to counter Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. We are pleading for renewed defense expenditures, but skeptical observers are not holding their breath Our best approach would be to emphasize that INF violations are part of a pattern of Russian recidivism that hark to the Cold War era. We want to avoid a “CWII” and the best way to do so is to push back in areas that appear most effective (economic sanctions) while being aware that Russian military development/rearmament may demand NATO ripostes in the medium-range future.


The young infantry 2nd lieutenant’s Fort Benning maxim was “Don’t just stand there; do something. Even if it is wrong, do something.” But we are not infantry officers. There is no need to “do something” regarding the INF Treaty. We are not terribly happy about it; the Treaty is not the bright, sparkling debutante  that came out in 1987. Nonetheless, though it may well look a bit shopworn today,  a realist sees that its utility is greater than not.End.


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer, served as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. He is frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.


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