Russia is engaged in a major violation of the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with the United States by building a new medium-range missile banned under the accord, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Disclosure of the treaty violation comes as President Barack Obama last week called for a new round of arms negotiations with Moscow aimed at cutting deployed nuclear warheads by one-third.
Intelligence officials said internal assessments identified Russia’s new Yars M missile that was tested earlier this month as an INF missile with a range of less than 5,500 kilometers.
"The intelligence community believes it’s an intermediate-range missile that [the Russians] have classified as an ICBM because it would violate the INF treaty" if its true characteristics were known, said one official.
However, Russia is denying its new Yars M missile represents an INF violation.
Retired Lt. Gen. Victor Yesin, a former commander of Russian strategic forces and current consultant to the chief of the general staff, said in an email to the Washington Free Beacon that Russia is complying with the terms of INF because the Yars M, also known as RS-26, is an ICBM and not a banned intermediate-range system.
"According to the information I have, Russia closely follows the obligations arising from the 1987 INF Treaty and 2010 New START Treaty," Yesin said. "The RS-26 ballistic missile, which is a Topol class ICBM, is not covered by the INF Treaty as its range is over 5,500 kilometers. Russia officially informed the U.S. about that in August 2011.
The issue of Russian INF compliance was raised in Moscow on Monday by presidential aide Sergei Ivanov, who told a television interviewer that Russia would not adhere to INF treaty constraints indefinitely.
"A legitimate question arises: On the one hand, we have signed the Soviet-U.S. treaty, and we are honoring it, but this can't last endlessly," Ivanov said according to Interfax.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said June 19 that some of Russia’s "neighbors," a reference to China, were developing INF missiles and suggested Moscow would not allow the INF treaty to hinder its strategic arms buildup.
"We cannot accept a situation that would put the strategic deterrent system out of balance and make our nuclear forces less effective," Putin said on the same day Obama announced plans for a one-third cut in the U.S. deployed nuclear warhead arsenal.
Two U.S. intelligence officials said the new Yars M mobile missile is not an ICBM and that the administration needs to confront the Russians on the system or risk undermining the entire arms control agenda.
The Russian INF violation initially was disclosed in vague terms by members of Congress, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.), and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.).
McKeon and Rogers wrote to Obama in April describing earlier concerns over what they called "a massive Russian violation and circumvention of an arms control obligation to the United States of great significance to this nation and its NATO allies."
"Briefings provided by your administration have agreed with our assessment that Russian actions are serious and troubling, but have failed to offer any assurance of any concrete action to address these Russian actions," the two chairman stated in the April 12 letter.
They noted that Senate Intelligence Committee members also have raised concerns about "clear examples of Russia’s noncompliance with its arms control obligations."
McKeon and Rogers said they expected the administration’s annual arms control compliance report, due to Congress April 15, to "directly confront the Russian violations and circumventions."
"We also seek your commitment not to undertake further reductions to the U.S. nuclear deterrent or extended deterrent until this Russian behavior is corrected," they said.
McKeon said in a statement in response to Obama’s Berlin disarmament speech that "Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty."
"I have been urging the president through classified and unclassified correspondence to take seriously these violations by Russia since last year, but the president has ignored these concerns," he said.
In February, McKeon and Rogers wrote to Obama asking why he had not responded to a classified Oct. 17 letter outlining "significant arms control violations by the Russian federation."
"It is clear that the Russian Federation is undertaking both systemic violation and circumvention of a significant arms control obligation to the United States," they said. "Such is the reality that confronts the United States, despite four years of your best efforts to ‘reset’ relations with that country."
White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the administration reports to Congress regularly through the annual report on arms control compliance.
"We take very seriously the importance of compliance with arms control treaties and agreements," she said. "When compliance questions arise, we routinely seek to resolve them with our treaty partners, and we will continue to do so. We also keep Congress informed of such matters."
Alexandra Bell, spokeswoman for Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, said the annual arms compliance report would be issued "in the near future" and will address issues of concern to Congress.
None of the administration or congressional officials interviewed for this report would identify the treaty in question.
However, the intelligence officials said the violations directly apply to the INF treaty.
"How can President Obama believe [the Russians] are going to live up to any nuclear treaty reductions when he knows they are violating the INF treaty by calling one of their missiles something else?" one official said.
The Reagan-era INF treaty banned ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 1,000 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers, or 620 miles and 3,418 miles. The treaty led to the elimination of U.S. nuclear-tipped Pershing ballistic and Ground-Launched Cruise missiles in Europe, along with Russian SS-20, SS-12, SS-23, SS-4, and SSC-X-4 missiles.
U.S. officials said the first details about the INF-range RS-26 missile emerged last year and intelligence assessments later confirmed the missile violates the INF treaty.
However, senior Obama administration officials so far have played down or dismissed the violation to avoid upsetting current and future arms talks with Moscow, the officials said.
Mark B. Schneider, a specialist on Russian missiles at the National Institute for Public Policy in Virginia, said the new Yars M missile appears to be an INF violation.
"There is increasing evidence that the ‘new’ Russian ICBM that they now call the Yars M or Rubezh is either a circumvention or violation of the INF Treaty," Schneider stated in an email.
Other potential INF violations outlined in Russian press reports include Moscow’s development of a new ground-launched cruise missile, and reports that the Russians have used anti-ballistic missiles and surface-to-air missiles as surface-to-surface missiles, Schneider said.
The June 6 test of the Yars M, first disclosed by the Free Beacon June 7, revealed it was launched from a missile base at Kapustin Yar and landed at an impact range at Sary-Shagan, about 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) away. That is "clearly INF range," Schneider said.
Schneider said that if the Russians tested a single-stage SS-27 Topol ICBM during that test, its expected range would be around 3,000 kilometers and under New START counting rules it would not be classified as an SS-27 ICBM. "Hence it would be a violation of the INF Treaty," he said.
Excessive "Soviet-level" secrecy surrounding the new Yars M missile also is raising questions among western missile experts about whether it violated the INF treaty, Schneider said.
A House Armed Services Committee staff member said administration officials recently told Congress that Russia was complying with the New START treaty.
The staff member said the issue of Russian treaty violations is not new and efforts were made in last year’s defense authorization bill to press the administration for answers to concerns expressed by both House and Senate members.
The refusal to address what one official called a "militarily significant" arms treaty violation led to the inclusion of language in last year’s version of the defense authorization bill that limited implementation of the 2010 New START arms treaty.
The fiscal 2014 defense bill includes a similar provision passed by the House earlier this month.
McKeon said the current legislation was approved "by an overwhelming margin" and "would prohibit further reductions while Russia is violating—if not in material breach of—its current obligations."
"There is bipartisan agreement that faithfulness and an honest, open exchange are the heart of any successful arms control process," McKeon said.
In response to the legislative provision in last year’s bill, Obama threated to veto it if the provisions blocking New START implementation were in the final bill.
In June 2012, Rep. Michael R. Turner (R., Ohio), then-chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, wrote to senior Obama administration national security officials questioning whether recent Russian strategic missile tests were carried out in violation of the INF treaty.
Turner asked the officials, including current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, whether Russia was developing capabilities "in configurations that violate the INF treaty."
In response, James N. Miller, undersecretary of defense for policy, sidestepped the questions in an Aug. 3, 2012, letter to Turner said last year’s ICBM tests were "not subject to any provisions or restrictions under the INF Treaty."
However, Miller added: "The United States continues to monitor-these issues very closely. Further information on the matters you raised will be available in the forthcoming Annual Compliance Report."
Article VI of the INF treaty states that neither party shall "produce or flight-test any intermediate-range missiles or produce any stages of such missiles or any launchers of such missiles."