The Great Dither: Is the INF Treaty Dead?

"Reagan and Gorbachev signing" by White House Photographic Office - National Archives and Records Administration ARC Identifier 198588, courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library:Source URL: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/photographs/large/c44071-15a.jpg

Josh Rogin had a great article yesterday on Russia's violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).  This is flying under the radar of most media coverage, and most Americans, but it is a big deal, and today I want to explore why.

For those not old enough to remember, the INF treaty was a very, very big deal.  It marked the first time in the Cold War that an entire class of nuclear weapons was removed from contention. It was also the first major arms control treaty signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, coming on the heels of their historic summit in Reykjavik. While the media at the time reported that summit as a complete failure, the behind the scenes action, during which the two leaders discussed eliminating ALL nuclear weapons, is increasingly seen by Cold War historians and scholars as the key turning point in US-Soviet relations, leading up to the end of the Cold War.

BTW, if you want to know the inside story of that summit, I highly recommend Ken Adelman's Book Reagan at Reykjavick: Forty-Eight Hours that Ended the Cold War. Adelman mixes his own recollection of the summit and current research to deliver a compelling, enjoyable read. His research is excellent and includes declassified information from the Soviet side of things. Adelman was part of the Reagan arms control negotiating team, heading up the then independent Arms Control and Disarmament Agency - part of the US State Department since 1999.

Anyway, Rogin's article is slightly deceptive.  He states that the Obama administration only admitted to Russian INF violations in July 2013, but "privately" knew about them going back to 2012.  Bill Gertzwould likely disagree, as he reported on Russian violations before the State Department copped to it, but I digress.

Here is the core of the question in Arms Control world: is testing a longer range missile, or a "tactical" nuclear air defense system at ranges within the INF treaty ban (500-5500 km) a violation, a circumvention, or just much ado about nothing?

The answer it appears, depends on who you ask.  Steven Pifer and Hans Kristensen both argue that the Russians are in compliance, as tests below the maximum range of a system are not banned by the treaty. There is a point to that - most missile tests are at ranges shorter than their maximum.  But here we cross from questions of technical utility to intent, and what the Russians are really up to.  As critics argue and the administration is now grudgingly accepting, the Russians are not testing an ICBM at shorter ranges. They are building longer range missiles to use at shorter ranges, with the intent to circumvent the INF treaty and threaten Eastern Europe. I would argue this has long been an intended part of the Russian nuclear weapons and defense strategy, partly motivated by US BMD, but mostly by internal Russian military politics. It is only now they feel they can implement it more openly and because of Ukraine, we are more open about calling them on it.

For those who have dismissed Russian actions, the question centers on whether the Yars-M missile system (classified by the Russians as an ICBM) is really an ICBM, or is actually a longer range Intermediate Range Missile meant to skirt the treaty restrictions. For others, the Yars-M is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are a lot of views from the Arms Control side of the house - Jeffery Lewis expressed the consensus "State Department" view in 2013, differing with Gertz and others who argued the Russians were violating the INF.  At the time, Arms Control advocates, jazzed up about President Obama's Nuclear Zero speech in Berlin, were actively arguing that there was room for additional bi-lateral cuts in US-Russian nuclear arsenals on the heels of the New START agreement.  Steven Pifer and Micheal E. O'Hanlan from Brookings had a book on the subject at the time - The Opportunity. The Global Zero movement was trying to go mainstream, picking up support from some old retired Republicans.  Many in the Arms Control world thought that the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review in 2010 that made some significant changes to US Nuclear Weapons Policy had set the stage for a new historic round of reductions. One suspects, that the original leaks to Bill Gertz and others about INF violations was a deliberate push-back to State, emanating from the E-Ring or elsewhere in the Pentagon, uneasy about both the NPR and utopian dreams of a nuclear free future.

As we have noted in previous posts (many of which draw on unpublished CBRNPro.net writings originating during 2013), the Russians were moving the other direction anyway. Sergei Lavrov was talking about "multi-lateral talks" and shunting away any discussion of further bi-lateral reductions. In addition, the Russian military had long pushed to end the INF treaty anyway. Since 2007, they usually tie Russian withdrawal to US/NATO missile defenses, threatening withdrawal if the US deploys BMD in Europe. 

That strategy achieved some success for the Russians, leading the Obama administration to stiff the Poles and Czechs on controversial land based systems previously agreed to (depending on your point of view).  That decision, to move from land based to "sea based" systems, was highly controversial and caused no end of pain for our Eastern European allies. As an added bonus, the Russians likely viewed the entire affair as American weakness, not an insignificant thing inside the Kremlin.

As we've argued elsewhere, when it comes to nuclear weapons, the Cold War never really ended for the Russians, only their tactics and strategy did. They are wedded to nuclear weapons as the core of their defense strategy. They are modernizing their force. They regularly threaten treaty withdrawal and complain about US BMD programs, even while they deploy new nuclear weapons and missiles. This isn't the arms race of yore, it is something entirely new and inherently more dangerous given Russian adventurism in the Baltic and Black Seas. 

Mark Schneider at the National Institute for Public Policy wrote what may be the most comprehensive and accurate piece on the entire affair last year (well worth a read), in which he points out that it isn't just tests of the Yars-M that everyone talks about, the Russians have never really been in complete compliance and have played games with the INF and other Arms Control treaties since the Clinton administration. 

So, in the final analysis, the Administration is being quite specious on the whole thing, and has been all along. During the President's first term, the administration was keen on its Russian "reset," New START, and another round of reductions, leading it to ignore Russian treaty violations. That wasn't really a new position, as it actually reflected every administration going back to Clinton.  From 2000-2008 the Bush administration was pushing so hard on BMD that Russian actions were seen as part of the back and forth game being played, whereas Clinton and Obama willfully ignored issues with treaty verification and violation because it was expedient to do so - they were trying to change the game - and the Russians didn't cooperate. Of course, the arms control world in the US has always contained a lot more wishful thinkers than realists.

The real problem for the administration is that their previous avoidance of the issue undercuts any threat of action now. Congress (the retiring Mike Rogers leading the effort) has pushed on this issue for several years, only to have the administration continue the party line of "See no evil." Following the events in Crimea and Ukraine, as well as stepped up Russian provocations in Eastern Europe especially against the Baltic states, the administration has looked to find ways to confront the Russians without having to take any real risks (at least as they perceive them). The INF treaty issue is one seized upon, with threats emanating from State do "do something."  One immediately thinks of Hans Blix and an angry letter. (Link NSFW). Are increased NATO activity and other attempts at deterrence "signalling" taken seriously by the Kremlin? Probably not, and their reaction so far is to step up the tensions further - every action met with a Russian counter action or outright provocation. The Kremlin, far from being cowed, is emboldened.

Given this state of affairs, it is fair to say that the INF treaty is probably dead anyway. Given that the US only has two real responses, as Rogin's article laid out, it is now question of defense or offense. It is extraordinarily unlikely the Obama administration will try to field and/or redeploy intermediate range missiles into Europe given the trouble that stirred up in the 1980s when Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl pushed the deployment of the Pershing II against huge pubic opposition. That deployment contributed to the INF treaty being signed but Obama is not Reagan. Cameron is not Thatcher, and Merkel is not Kohl. So offense is out.

That leaves only Ballistic Missile Defense, which the administration has been notoriously cool on. From the "after the election I'll have more flexibility" moment onward, the Obama administration has largely left Missile Defense on auto-pilot. Its only action now might be to reconsider the Polish and Czech sites, but that is doubtful. Instead the most likely action by the US is to do as little as possible, and continue making idle threats about "responses." Any action by the US over INF treaty violations, which we've threatened on multiple occasions without actually doing anything, is likely to result in Russian treaty withdrawal or increased violation of it. The same goes for the BMD option.  President Obama does not want the blame for the INF treaty falling apart, so between this rock and a hard place politically, the admin will dither on this one as long as it can, a strategy thatincreasingly looks likely to succeed in passing this buck to the next president.

Meanwhile, the Russians are pointing nuclear missiles at the heart of NATO and doing bomber runs against European and US targets, so it probably doesn't matter in the long term. The Cold War is back on whether we want it or not and the next President is going to have to confront it as directly as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower did after 1948.