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Alexander Yermakov

Military analyst, RAC expert

Eighteen months ago, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) was among the first to attempt to draw attention to the accelerating crisis around the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (the INF Treaty). At the time, RIAC developed several possible scenarios and today, we can confidently say that the most pessimistic one is now unfolding faster than we could have expected.

In February 2017, The New York Times published an article by Michael R. Gordon, one of the United States’ leading military journalists. Citing unnamed sources in the White House and the intelligence services, Gordon reported that Russia had deployed the new SSC-8 cruise missile. The Russian military had allegedly deployed two battalions with those cruise missiles that are in violation of the INF Treaty. Thus far, these missiles are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. There is not even any clarity on what the missile actually is: the claim that it is a Kalibr-class missile is a generally recognized theory that has not been proven. A year was spent churning out intense propaganda aimed at the public and NATO allies, who are extremely concerned about the emergence of a new European missile crisis.

On the whole, despite claims to the contrary, Russia’s stance, which is aimed at preserving the INF Treaty, has at least been relatively sincere in recent years. This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the sharp criticisms of the “unfair” agreement by the military and political leadership have recently ceased. Another argument is Russia’s policy of developing weapons systems, in particular, the large-scale and long-term program of building small-size missile carrier ships – if the INF Treaty is abolished, this program becomes meaningless.

The United States has not yet officially submitted a notification of its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. However, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, it will happen “either quite soon, or in a month or a month and a half.” Sadly, Donald Trump appears to be intent on demolishing a pillar of strategic stability and a means of enforcing limitations on nuclear based weapons. It can be explained by the domestic political agenda: the midterm elections are coming up, and it would be useful to demonstrate a harsh stance and a lack of pro-Russian leanings.

Ironically, the INF Treaty, which entered into force on June 1, 1988, is dying at the age of 30, just like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty, 1972–2002). Ominously, the New START Treaty that currently in force is up for renewal after 2021, when it too will turn 30 [10].

Eighteen months ago, the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) was among the first to attempt to draw attention to the accelerating crisis around the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (the INF Treaty). At the time, RIAC developed several possible scenarios and today, we can confidently say that the most pessimistic one is now unfolding faster than we could have expected.

Maybe in the future, foreign relations students taking an exam following on arms control (hopefully, the subject will not have been relegated to the realm of history by then) will be asked when the seeds for the eventual demise of the INF Treaty were planted. This is not an easy question. Was it the collapse of the USSR and the end of the confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs in Europe? Was it the rise of China and the missile powers of the “third world”? Was it the establishment of a unipolar world with a hegemon that can do no wrong and the start of the extremely painful reformatting into a multipolar world? Or was it the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a pillar of the strategic stability system? Perhaps it was predicated on Russia’s displeasure and its desire to close, in the simplest way possible, the military and technical gap in certain areas, as is witnessed, in Vladimir Putin criticizing the INF Treaty in his legendary Munich speech [1]. For students at Harvard or Yale, the latter answer will certainly be the correct one.

However, student textbooks mark the dates of military conflicts without taking into account the periods of escalation; for them, starting points are when cannons start firing. We know well the date of the first salvo in this conflict, and it is, fortunately, only a propaganda confrontation so far. On February 14, 2017, St. Valentine’s Day, The New York Times published an article by Michael Gordon, one of the US’ leading military journalists. Citing unnamed sources in the White House and the intelligence services, Gordon reported that Russia had deployed the new SSC-8 cruise missile. The Russian military had allegedly deployed two battalions with those cruise missiles that are in violation of the INF Treaty (they have a range of over 500 kilometres). This was not the first time that Gordon had revealed the secret intentions of Washington’s adversaries to the world: in September 2002, once again citing anonymous members of the Administration and the intelligence services, he wrote about Iraq’s nuclear program under Saddam Hussein.

The New York Times published an article by Michael Gordon, one of the US’ leading military journalists. Citing unnamed sources in the White House and the intelligence services, Gordon reported that Russia had deployed the new SSC-8 cruise missile.

The reaction of American legislators was commendably prompt: as early as February 16, a bipartisan bill was submitted under the rather ironic title of the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Preservation Act.” Among other measures intended to force Russia to comply with the treaty was the proposal for the United States to develop a land-based cruise missile unit of its own. Remarkably, this happened a little over a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump, a president whose election raised the hopes of many that U.S.–Russia relations would start to improve. Looking back, we can confidently state that his “pro-Russian stance” was largely a figment of people’s imagination, since it was at his “Russian connections” that his many political opponents directed their blows. Any friendly steps towards Moscow became impossible since they were perceived as “proof of treason.”

A year was spent churning out intense propaganda aimed at the public and NATO allies, who are extremely concerned about the emergence of a new European missile crisis [2]. On the whole, the provisions of the bill and the accusations against Russia were enshrined in the “National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) for the fiscal year 2018, which was signed on December 12, 2017. Russia’s media often call the NDAA “America’s military budget,” although this is something of an oversimplification, since, along with military spending, it also includes political and strategic points. It should be noted that the provisions of the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Preservation Act” incorporated in the final document were somewhat watered down: the document approved the development of a missile unit, but without nuclear warheads; Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty was no longer tied to extending the New START or preserving the “open sky” agreement.

Is Silence Indeed Golden?

Igor Ivanov:
Road to Nowheres

After the adoption of NDAA’18, Russia’s position also underwent certain changes. In late December, Director of the Foreign Ministry Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Mikhail Ulyanov gave an interview detailing America’s accusations. It was finally announced that the American index SSC-8 stands for Russia’s 9М729, an index that had a buzzword for the previous two weeks.

Things did not become any clearer: thus far, these missiles are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty. There is no clarity on what that missile is: the claim that it is a Kalibr-class missile is a generally recognized theory that has not been proven. After eighteen months of whipping up hysteria around “Russia’s proven violations” [3], the United States failed to provide the public with any of this notorious “evidence.” The United States was selective even when it came to sharing this evidence with their NATO allies [4]. This conduct lends itself to different interpretations, but the most obvious one is that the United States is aware that its arguments are not entirely convincing. Moscow’s stance can be called “passive-aggressive”: to all the unsubstantiated accusations that 9М729 exceeds the permitted range, Moscow gives equally unsubstantiated replies that the missile complies with range limitations. The missile was never shown to the public, although, as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov claimed, “at earlier stages of discussing this topic, Russia gave its American colleagues complete information on missile testing: when and at what range” [5].

The New York Times published an article by Michael Gordon, one of the US’ leading military journalists. Citing unnamed sources in the White House and the intelligence services, Gordon reported that Russia had deployed the new SSC-8 cruise missile.

There is, of course, a certain logic to Moscow’s stance. First, “the burden of proof lies with the accuser,” and there is no need to make public answers to non-public accusations. Second, even if a missile that does not violate the treaty is demonstrated, opponents can always claim that “this is not the real 9М729.” Third, I will borrow a leaf from Michael Gordon’s book and cite anonymous sources saying that the stance of Russia’s military and political leadership is that any such demonstration will be perceived as a weakness and used as a pretext to whip up even more of a frenzy.

Among other measures intended to force Russia to comply with the treaty was the proposal for the United States to develop a land-based cruise missile unit of its own.

Still, my personal opinion is that the positive effects of demonstrating an INF-compliant missile, as well as an openness that would contrast the position of the United States, would outweigh the negative effects of such a demonstration. It could particularly influence the global community of experts on weapons limitations who already perceive the actions of the United States with scepticism, and the position of European countries that cling to the possibility of preserving the INF Treaty.

There is no clarity on what that missile is: the claim that it is a Kalibr-class missile is a generally recognized theory that has not been proven.

It should be noted that Russia had counter-grievances against the United States. Primarily they apply to using Mk.41 vertical launching systems in land-based Aegis Ashore missile defence systems. The launchers are similar to those used on surface vessels, for launching Tomahawk long-range missiles as well. Although it does not make military sense to deploy cruise missiles on a vulnerable and immobile system with a relatively small ammunition allowance [6] when there is a large fleet of vessels armed with such missiles, formally, such counter-grievances are hard to refute, which the American side admits [7]. Other grievances are weaker: strike drones are classified under the cruise missile definition given in the INF Treaty [8] (it is unclear how this accusation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation jibes with Sukhoi Company developing an Okhotnik [Hunter] strike drone for the Russian Aerospace Forces), while target missiles for testing the missile defence system are classified as “‘maintaining technological potential’ in developing intermediate-range missiles,” even though their characteristics and the possibility of developing them are directly stipulated in the Treaty [9].

On the whole, despite claims to the contrary, Russia’s Position, which is aimed at preserving the INF Treaty, has at least been relatively sincere in recent years. This is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the sharp criticisms of the “unfair” agreement by the military and political leadership have recently ceased. Another argument is Russia’s policy of developing weapons systems, in particular, the large-scale and long-term programme of building small-size missile carrier ships – if the INF Treaty is abolished, then this programme becomes meaningless.

The 30 Club

Let us go back six months and across the Atlantic. The draft NDAA’19 was submitted in May 2018. The document confirmed the previous year’s measures and adding the requirement that the U.S. President confirms Russia’s complete and verifiable compliance with the INF Treaty to specialized Congress committees a year after the draft is signed into law. Otherwise, it was proposed that the United States no longer comply with Article VI of the INF Treaty, that very article that prohibits manufacturing, testing and deploying new missiles with prohibited ranges. The final document signed on August 13 incorporated a wording that was both watered-down and demanded more prompt actions. Under the law signed by Donald Trump, the President undertook to submit a report to Congress committees on Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty by January 15. However, in the opposite case, the document mandated, instead of terminating the treaty, that an explanation of whether limitations under Article VI of the INF Treaty applied to the United States. However, we will never know what that phrase really meant since Donald Trump preferred not to wait until January.

It should be noted that the provisions of the “Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Preservation Act” incorporated in the final document were somewhat watered down.

On Friday October 19, that same New York Times ran another sensational article on the United States leaving the INF Treaty. Soon, Donald Trump confirmed these plans in a public address. This statement was clearly timed to coincide with the October 21–22 visit of National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton to Moscow. Bolton is a known opponent of the INF Treaty. Summing up the statements made by John Bolton and Donald Trump, the United States considers it unfair that Russia violates the Treaty (no, there is still no evidence of this), and that China is not bound by the Treaty at all. If Russia went back to complying with the Treaty and China for some reason decided to sign the treaty and comply with it (destroying the majority of their missiles), then the United States also could stay in the agreement, but the probability of that, according to Bolton, is “zero.”

The United States has not yet officially submitted a notification of its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. However, according to Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, it will happen “either quite soon, or in a month or a month and a half.” Sadly, Donald Trump appears to be intent on demolishing a pillar of strategic stability and a means of enforcing limitations on nuclear based weapons. It can be explained by the domestic political agenda: the midterm elections are coming up, and it would be useful to demonstrate a harsh stance and a lack of pro-Russian leanings.

Ironically, the INF Treaty, which that entered into force on June 1, 1988, is dying at the age of 30, just like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty, 1972–2002). Ominously, the New START Treaty that currently in force is up for renewal after 2021, when it too will turn 30 [10].

1. “… Today many other countries have these missiles… and plan to incorporate them as part of their weapons arsenals. And only the United States and Russia bear the responsibility to not create such weapons systems. It is obvious that in these conditions we must think about ensuring our own security.”

2. The European missile crisis occurred when the USSR deployed its high-accuracy Pioneer IRBMs and the U.S. deployed Pershing IIs and GLCMs in response following requests from its allies, who were concerned that the balance power in Europe had shifted in favour of the Eastern bloc. The crisis ultimately resulted in signing the INF Treaty in 1987.

3. And several more accusations on the pages of specialized reports. The Barack Obama Administration also allegedly had its grievances against SSC-X-8 since 2013; however, they only mentioned testing, not deployment, and there was no particular uproar surrounding the issue. The letter X in the index indicates the missile’s experimental status; the letter was gone in early 2017.

4. On October 2, 2018, the United States Permanent Representative to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said, “We have documented on numerous occasions that Russia is violating. We have shown Russia that evidence. Some of our allies have seen that evidence. All of our allies have seen some of that evidence.”

5. It is noteworthy that the same statement claimed that more 9М729 launches were made at the WEST 2017 exercises held in September 2017.

6. Aegis Ashore complexes that are deployed in Romania and under construction in Poland include 24 Mk.41 launchers. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer carries 90-96 such launchers, and a Ticonderoga-class cruiser carries 122. Usually, an overwhelming majority have anti-aircraft missiles; however, a single naval vessel will easily take on board more cruise missiles than both European missile defence units can accommodate.

7. In particular, in the “Russian Compliance with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty” report to Congress.

8. “Unmanned, equipped with its own propelling system; airlift accounts for its flight capacity for most of its trajectory.”

9. In particular, paragraphs 3 and 12 of Article VII.

10. If we view the START I–SORT–New START series of treaties as a single process.

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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
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     4 (4%)
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