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On Tuesday, the Trump administration’s relationship with the Russian Federation became even more complex—and not just because of the chaos surrounding the departure of Lt. General Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. According to a New York Times report, Moscow surreptitiously deployed weapons systems in violation of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INFT). Under the INFT, the United States and Soviet Union not only agreed to eliminate all of their land-based “intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles” with striking ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, but also pledged to indefinitely forswear those weapons. Shortly after the treaty’s ratification, Washington and Moscow destroyed over 2,600 missile systems. The accord has since been hailed as a “harbinger of the end of the Cold War.”
In November, I analyzed the INFT, longstanding U.S. government allegations of Russia treaty violations, and the accord’s dispute resolution mechanism. In response to concerns that Russia had been producing missiles in contravention of the accord, President Obama invoked INFT Article XIII in October, which required the Kremlin to attend talks under the guise of the Special Verification Commission, the treaty’s “forum for discussing and resolving implementation and compliance issues.”
Washington and Moscow convened the Special Verification Commission from November 15-16, 2016—the first such meeting in 13 years. The State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry statements following the Commission’s talks neither indicated whether the impasse had been broken nor did the releases detail whether the Commission would convene again for further dialogue.
But unlike reports from last October and November which accused the Kremlin of producing banned systems, Tuesday’s New York Times article reports that Moscow deployed a battalion armed with prohibited missiles. If true, this development would be one of the most severe breaches of the INFT since its ratification in 1988.
Missile and Deployment Details
The New York Times and noted arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis speculate that the controversial weapon system is likely the SSC-8/9M279, a land-based variant of Russia’s sea-launched Kalibr cruise missile. RealClearDefense reported that the Russian Navy employed Kalibr missiles to range targets 1,500 kilometers away in Syria, a distance that falls squarely within the INFT’s prohibited range of 500-5,500 kilometers.
And according to The New York Times, U.S. government officials believe that Russia has fielded the SSC-8 to two battalions, one of which is located at a test site in southern Russia. The other battalion has apparently been deployed “to an operational base elsewhere in the country.” Significantly, each battalion allegedly includes four mobile launching stations armed with six SSC-8 nuclear warheads.
How Will the U.S. Respond?
In August 2014, then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander U.S. General Philip Breedlove asserted: “A weapon capability that violates the [INFT], that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with . . . It can’t go unanswered.”
Even so, Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency might have altered the diplomatic calculus surrounding the INFT. President Trump, in stark contrast to President Obama, has adopted a conciliatory tone towards Moscow and President Vladimir Putin. Trump has stated that his administration would seek to improve the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. The President has also questioned the usefulness of the NATO alliance, which the INFT was, in part, implemented to protect. Further, in contrast to the INFT’s stated aim of stemming proliferation of certain weapons, President Trump has conveyed a willingness to expand the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
And as Washington is in turmoil over a crisis precipitated by the Trump administration’s contacts with Russian officials, the President has not yet acknowledged the alleged Russian breach of the treaty. Instead, his recent tweets mention Russia in unrelated attacks on the media and intelligence community. In response to the alleged deployment, Senator John McCain called on the Trump administration “to take immediate action to enhance our deterrent posture in Europe and protect our allies,” but we have yet to see any signs of action on this score.
For its part, Russia has yet to confirm the deployment. Indeed, according to the state-run media outlet Sputnik, a Kremlin official stated, “Nobody officially accused Russia of violating the [INFT]. Of course Russia was and remains committed to its international obligations, including the framework of the agreement.” Interestingly, Sputnik also reported on February 8 that “Moscow will not initiate dialogue on the [INFT] with the United States until Washington identifies its approaches.” But whether and how President Trump responds to Moscow’s alleged breach remain open questions.