Russia Violates Intermediate Nuclear Missile Treaty

Administration faulted for delay in exposing Moscow arms cheating

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin
Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin / AP
July 29, 2014

Moscow violated a key strategic nuclear arms accord by developing a ground-launched cruise missile banned under the 1987 agreement, according to the State Department.

"The United States has determined that the Russian federation is in violation of its obligations under the [Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces] Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles," the annual arms compliance report made public Tuesday states.

The INF treaty breach, which had been kept secret by the Obama administration since 2010, is a setback for President Barack Obama’s arm-control-focused national security policies.

The report said the issue was raised during discussions with Russian officials "on repeated occasions in an effort to resolve U.S. concerns" in 2013.

"The United States will continue to pursue resolution of U.S. concerns with Russia," the report added.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, criticized the administration for delaying the release of the report on the violation. The report is required under law to be sent to Congress in April.

"Only after almost two years of the Congress pushing him has the president finally said what was plain to see: Russia is cheating on its agreements with the United States, putting the United States and its allies in East Asia and Europe at risk," Rogers said.

"We must not allow [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to think he can get away with this cheating," he added. "While the president leads from behind, my subcommittee has been busy showing Putin he cannot win."

Rogers sponsored legislation calling for the administration to declare Moscow in "material breach" of the INF treaty, and demanding that Russia eliminate the illegal systems. The legislation also calls for a halt in further strategic arms talks with the Russians.

The legislation would require a review of whether the United States should withdraw from the INF treaty.

Congress is investigating why the administration failed to inform oversight committees of the treaty breach since 2010.

The treaty violation, if it had been disclosed earlier, likely would have affected Senate ratification of the 2010 New START arms accord with Russia.

"It took two years for President Obama to admit what was obvious to every other senior U.S. policymaker long ago–that the Russians are cheating on a critical arms control treaty," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard  P. "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.).

"Instead of holding Russia accountable, the president closed his eyes, made excuses, and–through his inaction–encouraged Putin to drag us into a second cold war. With the world sliding further in chaos, we must ask the obvious question. What other truths is the president not facing?"

John Bolton, former undersecretary of state for arms control, criticized the administration for delaying the treaty violation.

"The Obama administration has finally admitted the undeniable reality of Russian INF violations," Bolton said in an email. "But make no mistake, the implications extend well beyond INF. This admission is a dagger aimed right at the heart of the entire arms-control theology."

Former Pentagon strategic policy analyst Mark Schneider also said the issue goes beyond the illegal testing of an INF cruise missile.

Schneider said Russian state-run press reports have suggested the new missile is deployed.

Schneider also said the testing of the RS-26 intercontinental ballistic missile to INF range also violated the treaty.

"The finding on its face is very broad," Schneider said of the official report language.

A literal reading of the report finding indicates "Russia is violating half of the treaty," he said.

"They don't state a fact situation but the plain meaning of the finding in the context of the legal analysis seems to say that they are in violation" of key provisions, including possession, production, flight testing of banned cruise missiles, and possession and production of launchers, Schneider said.

"They completely ignore the RS-26 issue or any of the other issues," he said.

Asked why the administration took so long to declare the Russian treaty breach, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said "these determinations are rooted primarily in the kind of intelligence analysis that I can’t discuss from the podium."

"But it is true that this is something that we have been reviewing for some time and has been the subject of conversations within the administration and with members of Congress as well," he said.

Earnest added: "This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now."

However, the administration has no plans to jettison the Soviet-era treaty, he said.

"It is our view that the INF treaty and the agreements that are a part of it are in the broad national security interests of every party that has agreed to that treaty," he said, adding that the treaty remains a "priority."

He declined to provide details of the violation.

According to a fact sheet provided by the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon has said arms treaty violations must have consequences. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stated that "it is not enough to detect noncompliance; violators must know that they will face consequences when they are caught."

Also, Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of the U.S. European Command and NATO commander, stated in April that "a weapon capability that violates the INF, that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with ... I would not judge how the alliance will choose to react, but I would say they will have to consider what to do about it ... It can't go unanswered."

The State report made no mention of an additional INF violation by Russia disclosed by the Washington Free Beacon in October involving a Russian strategic missile test in an INF mode, which the administration has sought to dismiss as an INF "circumvention."

The ground-launched cruise missile was identified by U.S. officials as the R-500, which has an estimated range of 1,243 miles.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said "we encourage Russia to return to compliance with its obligations under the treaty and to eliminate any prohibited items in a verifiable manner."

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the treaty violation Tuesday morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, she said, adding that Lavrov said he would "consult and respond" soon to Kerry’s requests that Russia come back into treaty compliance.

U.S. ties to Russia currently are strained over Moscow’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and continuing Russian-backed subversion in eastern Ukraine. The administration earlier accused Russian military forces of firing artillery rockets into Ukraine.

Russian officials have said in the past several years that the INF treaty was hindering Russian security because of China’s development of intermediate-range missiles.

Putin said in 2013 that Russia’s neighbors were developing INF missiles and suggested that he would not allow Russian strategic nuclear modernization to be hindered by the treaty.

"We cannot accept a situation that would put the strategic deterrent system out of balance and make our nuclear forces less effective," Putin said June 19, 2013—the same day Obama announced in Germany plans for a one-third cut in the U.S. deployed nuclear warhead arsenal.