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Dispute Resolution Over Alleged Russian Breaches of the INF Treaty

Rick Houghton
Monday, November 21, 2016, 2:30 PM

President-elect Donald Trump spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone last Monday, agreeing to improve the “unsatisfactory” relations between the two nuclear powers. “The overall tone of the conversation corresponded with the tone of statements already made during [Mr. Trump’s] election campaign concerning Russian-American relations,” noted a Kremlin spokesman.

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President-elect Donald Trump spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone last Monday, agreeing to improve the “unsatisfactory” relations between the two nuclear powers. “The overall tone of the conversation corresponded with the tone of statements already made during [Mr. Trump’s] election campaign concerning Russian-American relations,” noted a Kremlin spokesman.

We may be witnessing the beginning of a remarkable shift in U.S.-Russia relations. President Obama, who has been at odds with President Putin for much of the past eight years, urged President-elect Trump to “stand up” to the Kremlin. Mr. Trump, at least for now, seems inclined to adopt a much friendlier approach towards Moscow.

But there are many concrete obstacles to a U.S. rapprochement with Russia. One is a serious dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INFT). Since 2014, the United States has publicly accused Moscow of violating the treaty. The Obama administration recently invoked the INFT’s dispute resolution mechanism, the Special Verification Commission, to confront Russia over the alleged violations. The Commission met in Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time in 13 years. This post provides background on the INFT, the alleged Russian breaches of the treaty, and the recent dispute resolution over those alleged breaches.


The INFT was signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987 and ratified by both states in 1988. It required the United States and USSR to “eliminate [their] intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles” with striking ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The two countries also agreed to forswear all nuclear and conventional missile systems listed in the agreement, though the accord only banned ground-launched systems and did not limit air- or sea-launched missiles. Upon the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s obligations under the INFT and continues to be bound by the agreement today. (See this comment for a discussion of treaty succession in the context of the USSR’s disintegration.)

The INFT also targeted the research, development, and logistical components necessary to deploy and sustain the prohibited weapons. Articles IV and V oblige the U.S government and Soviet Union to destroy the missiles’ “launchers[,] support structures and support equipment . . . associated with such missiles and launchers.” The treaty even bars the production and flight-testing of any ground-launched system within the specified ranges.

In a historic breakthrough, the INFT joined these broad prohibitions with an elaborate inspection regime that reflected President Reagan’s “trust, but verify” foreign policy. Under Article XI, the United States and USSR agreed to intrusive, short-notice inspections of certain sensitive facilities for 13 years. Although those inspection protocols expired in 2001, Article XII of the INFT permits the U.S. and Russian governments to use “national technical means of verification at [their] disposal,” e.g., satellite imagery, to “ensur[e] verification of compliance.”

Within three years of the INFT’s implementation, the United States and USSR together destroyed over 2,600 ground-launched, nuclear-capable missiles—two entire categories of weapon systems. According to Rose Gottemoeller, later U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and now Deputy Secretary General of NATO, the accord was a “harbinger of the end of the Cold War.” Shortly after the INFT entered into force, the U.S. government and USSR brokered the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe in 1990 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) in 1991.

Although the improved relations reflected in these treaties were strained by Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and by American proposals to install advanced missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, Washington and Moscow continued to cooperate in the sphere of nuclear weapons. In 2010, President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START accord, which limited the United States and Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenals.

Alleged Russian Violations of the INFT

The United States began detecting Russian cruise missile tests in possible violation of the INFT as early as 2008. In July 2014, the State Department released an annual arms control compliance report publicly accusing Russia of violating the INFT’s obligations “not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” The Department amplified these accusations in 2015 and 2016, charging that “the cruise missile developed by Russia meets” the INFT’s prohibited class of weapon systems. While the U.S. government has not disclosed precisely which Russian system falls within the prohibited classification, experts speculate that it could be the R-500, SSC-X-8, or 3M14 Kalibr cruise missile systems.

Whatever the system may be, Under Secretary Gottemoeller emphasized in September 2015 that “this violation is not a technicality or a mistake . . . . We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty.” Congress has also asserted that Russia materially breached the INFT, concluding in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 that Russia not only developed a prohibited system but also deployed banned missiles in violation of the accord.

On October 17, 2016, Congressmen William Thornberry, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to President Obama outlining their “urgent concern about the failure of your Administration to confront Russia’s violation of the [INFT].” The letter added “that the situation regarding Russia’s violation has worsened and Russia is now in material breach of the Treaty.”

The alleged Russian violations of the INFT take place against the backdrop of other aggressive Russian actions related to nuclear weapons. In October alone, Russia:

(1) unveiled a new, high-yield intercontinental ballistic missile;

(2) suspended a weapons-grade plutonium disposal accord with the United States;

(3) announced the deployment of nuclear-capable Iskander missile systems (a short-range system that may, depending on the missile launched from the platform, violate the INFT) to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave that borders NATO allies Poland and Lithuania;

(4) test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine; and

(5) conducted civil-defense drills involving 40 million people in preparation for nuclear conflict, the largest exercise of its kind since the fall of the Soviet Union.

President Putin also stated a willingness to activate nuclear forces during the Crimea crisis, and Russia threatened to target the Danish navy with nuclear weapons. Further, Moscow has expanded the role of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine. The Russian military establishment has increased the number of contingency scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used, and President Putin hinted that Russia may employ nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict.

The Special Verification Commission

Russia and the United States met last week in Geneva to discuss the alleged Russian violations of the INFT pursuant to Article XIII of the treaty. Article XIII established a “Special Verification Commission” that the State Department describes as “a forum for discussing and resolving implementation and compliance issues.” It provides:

To promote the objectives and implementation of the provisions of this Treaty, the Parties hereby establish the Special Verification Commission. The Parties agree that, if either Party so requests, they shall meet within the framework of the Special Verification Commission to: (a) resolve questions relating to compliance with the obligations assumed; and (b) agree upon such measures as may be necessary to improve the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty.

The obligation to meet upon request of another party is mandatory (“shall meet”), but the treaty says nothing about what happens in such a meeting and provides for no procedures. A December 1988 memorandum of understanding between the Soviet Union and United States, signed seven months after the INFT entered into force, fleshes out the Commission’s operation. The U.S. On-Site Inspection Agency’s official history of the INFT’s verification protocols states:

Once [a Special Verification Commission] meeting had been convened, the operating rules were relatively straightforward. The senior representatives of the two nations would preside over the meeting on an alternate basis. The commission could, if appropriate, divide itself into operational working groups consisting of advisors and experts for addressing particular questions. The work of the commission was to be conducted in a confidential manner.

The Commission has been successful in the past. According to former State Department INFT negotiator George Rueckert, Washington and Moscow “worked effectively to resolve numerous . . . implementation and verification issues” in the Commission’s forum. But neither the United States nor Russia has convened the Commission since 2003, perhaps because the INFT’s inspection protocols expired in 2001. When the U.S. government first alleged that Russia breached the accord in 2014, the White House avoided the Commission. Instead, President Obama engaged President Putin directly, and other high-ranking U.S. officials reached out to their Russian counterparts to convey the government’s concerns.

When those efforts failed to resolve the dispute, the Obama administration finally summoned Russia to a mandatory meeting of the INFT’s Special Verification Commission, the first such meeting in 13 years. Media reports do not indicate precisely when the U.S. government first lodged the request; it appears to have been transmitted to Moscow in the aftermath of the release of Congressmen Thornberry and Nunes’s letter.

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s chief nonproliferation and arms control officer stated that Russia responded “positively” to the request and added that Moscow planned to raise suspected United States violations of the INFT at the Commission’s meeting. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Kremlin has alleged that three U.S. military programs violate the INFT: (1) missile defense targets used for testing and training purposes; (2) armed drones; and (3) Aegis Ashore, the deployment of Navy MK-41 interceptors to land-based silos in Eastern Europe. And last month at the United Nations, a Russian official called on the United States “to immediately return to the impeccable and faithful implementation of the INF Treaty.” Unsurprisingly, Washington strongly denies these allegations.

There are few press reports on the Commission’s meeting this week in Geneva, and Washington and Moscow provided only brief statements after talks ended on Wednesday. The State Department’s release stated:

The Thirtieth Session of the Special Verification Commission under the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty) took place in Geneva, Switzerland, November 15-16. The United States, Belarusian, Kazakh, Russian, and Ukrainian Delegations met to discuss questions relating to compliance with the obligations assumed under the Treaty.

Neither this statement nor Russia’s statement details whether the impasse was broken, or even if the Commission will meet again for further dialogue. And any optimism may need to be tempered: previous deadlocks have taken years to resolve. For example, the Soviet Union and United States took seven years to remedy the USSR’s breach of the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.

Even so, some commentators have suggested that bilateral talks in the Commission’s private forum “could ease efforts to initiate a substantive discussion free of political posturing, while clearing the agenda of unrelated issues.” The Commission may also provide the U.S. government with an opportunity to present convincing evidence of the breach to Russian officials. And even if Washington and Moscow do not reach a consensus, some believe that the United States and Russia could eventually reach a deal to redefine some of the INFT’s provisions to “reduce the chances of future ambiguities or uncertainties.”

But will President-elect Trump continue to press Moscow over the alleged breaches? Despite Mr. Trump’s many inconsistencies, the President-elect has been consistent in his unabashed affinity for the Russian head of state. And that feeling appears to be mutual. President Putin’s congratulatory telegram to Mr. Trump arrived early on November 9, conveying Mr. Putin’s “hope they can work together toward the end of the crisis in Russian-American relations.” These sentiments extended beyond the walls of the Kremlin—the Russian parliament “burst[] into applause upon hearing [the election] result.” Although these developments may portend a coming thaw in the thorny U.S.-Russian relationship, the future of the INFT and the dispute over alleged Russian breaches of the accord remain open questions.

Rick Houghton is a student at Harvard Law School. Previously, he served in the U.S. Army for six years as an Air Defense Artillery officer. He holds a Master of Studies degree from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Military Academy.

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