Decades of Russian violations behind US treaty withdrawal
Last week, NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg warned that the military alliance would respond to Russian violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed in 1987, the treaty aimed to eliminate all short- and intermediate-range US and Russian land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers. But following repeated Russian violations, the US formally suspended the treaty earlier this month.
Without urgent action, it is set to expire in just under six months. The treaty’s absence will make the world a much more dangerous place, needlessly restarting an arms race that is in neither party’s interest. Far from being an ill-thought-out, sudden decision of the type that the Trump administration has become known for, US misgivings about Russian commitment to the treaty terms have been longstanding, and it is important that they have been raised.
In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union introduced a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missile. Known in the West as the Sabre, the RSD-10 could carry up to three nuclear warheads, and though it could not strike the American continent, it could hit NATO allies in Europe.
As a direct result, the US and NATO fielded two intermediate-range weapons of their own: The Gryphon ground-launched cruise missile, and the Pershing II ballistic missile. Whereas American intercontinental and submarine-launched nuclear missiles could take up to an hour to reach the Soviet Union, these new missiles could hit Moscow in under 10 minutes, causing the Russians to completely rethink their own deployment.
Given the very real specter of a surprise attack, US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty to ban ballistic missiles from 310 to 3,420 miles, thereby ensuring continental security.
Both sides began dismantling missiles, with the Soviet Union destroying 1,846 and the US 846. Though the treaty did not prohibit ship- and aircraft-based missiles within the same range, the world — especially European capitals — breathed a sigh of relief. But in 2014, the Obama administration expressed concern that Russia was violating the treaty.
Should the US invest in an influx of new weapons to respond to Russia’s violations, the latter would struggle to keep up in the context of its falling defense budget.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Known by the US and NATO as the Screwdriver, and in Russia as the 9M729 or Iskander-M, the new missile — though ostensibly a long-range weapon — had been tested at distances of under 500 km, importantly from mobile launchers. Russia had created a weapon that flies to the intermediate ranges prohibited by the treaty and launches from a ground-mobile platform.
First tested in 2005, Moscow failed to meet a deadline to destroy the weapon this month, prompting the US to signal its withdrawal. “Countries must be held accountable when they break the rules,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Russia has jeopardized the United States’ security interests, and we can no longer be restricted by the treaty while Russia shamelessly violates it.”
It is fitting that this issue comes to the fore on the eve of the Munich Security Conference. In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the conference to suggest that the treaty did not suit his country’s needs in the context of North Korea, South Korea, India, Iran and Pakistan possessing intermediate-range missiles.
Since signaling its intention to disrespect the treaty, Russia has now deployed four battalions of the Screwdriver, some 100 missiles, within striking distance of European targets. Using ground-based launchers, Moscow has opted to breach the treaty by choosing launchers that are more cost-effective than warships and warplanes, while also being more nimble and harder to track in a conflict scenario.
Since the exposure of their new missiles, Russia has sought to distract accusations of violating the treaty by raising concerns about Mk. 41 armored missile silos deployed in Romania as part of a US ballistic missile shield — a critical part of containing Iran. As in the late 1970s, Russia risks immersing itself in an arms race that will not only make it less secure, but also stretch its budget to the limit.
There is no doubt that starting more than a decade ago, Moscow decided to start covert development of a system that would violate the treaty. With the capability once again to threaten targets in Europe, the US and NATO are right to send an uncompromising signal to Moscow. Should the US invest in an influx of new weapons to respond to Russia’s violations, the latter would struggle to keep up in the context of its falling defense budget.
Though the treaty may not be rescued, its implosion must be a lesson to Moscow that its policies will be met with serious consequences, and that without an urgent round of diplomacy, the two sides may find themselves without any treaty constraints to their nuclear weapons for the first time in half a century.
— Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).