While speaking at the Wilson Center on Nov. 29, Christopher Ford, the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation on the National Security Council, made a bold move. He revealed, for the first time publicly, the name of the Russian missile system the United States has claimed is in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
To most Americans this means very little. But in reality, his statement carries more devastating implications than you might think, with the fate of arms control in the very balance.
The INF Treaty celebrated the 30th anniversary of its signing on December 8. Known as “The treaty that ended the Cold War,” it was supposed to eliminate U.S. and Soviet ballistic missiles and ground-launching cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers (310 and 3,417 miles). By calling out the Russian missile system in question—the 9M729 (known in the U.S. as the SSC-8), assessed by the United States of having a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers—the Trump administration has committed itself to a path that either compels Russia to come back into treaty compliance by eliminating the offending missile system (something the Russians are unlikely to do), or has the United States withdraw from the INF Treaty in order to develop and deploy its own INF-class weapons in response. Either way, the prognosis for the continued survival of the INF Treaty is not good.
How did we get here? The imperative for nuclear disarmament that underpinned the INF Treaty when it was signed in 1987 quickly dissipated. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. A new disarmament treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), was signed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, however, fundamentally altered the strategic balance of power, and the impetus that drove American nuclear disarmament negotiations during the 1980’s was no longer present.
A follow-on to the START Treaty, known as START II, was signed in 1993, but was not ratified by the U.S. Senate until 1996. The Russian Duma withheld its ratification of the agreement until 2000, and only under the condition that the U.S. Senate ratify a 1997 addendum to the START II Treaty on ballistic missile defense. One of the central precepts that drove U.S.-Soviet nuclear deterrence policy during the Cold War was “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, which held that since both sides would be destroyed in a general nuclear exchange, neither side would be the first to use nuclear weapons. One of the ways MAD was cemented as policy was through the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed in 1972, which limited both the United States and the Soviet Union to two missile defense installations each possessing no more than 100 missile interceptors in total.
By 2000, however, American national security policy makers were more concerned about nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in the hands of rogue nations such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea than they were about a Russian missile attack. In December 2001, the United States announced its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, effective June 2002. This in turn prompted the Russians to withdraw from the START II Treaty. A new arms reduction treaty, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), was signed in May 2002, and entered into force in June 2003. This treaty, however, focused on the number of operational nuclear warheads that each side could deploy, as opposed to the delivery systems.
When President Obama took office, in January 2009, one of the first major issues his administration faced was the fate of the START I Treaty, which expired in December 2009. While the Obama administration was not able to salvage the START I Treaty, it was able to negotiate a new disarmament agreement, known as “New START”, which was signed in 2010 and replaced SORT as the principle disarmament treaty vehicle between the United States and Russia. New START capped the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons at 1,550, and the number of deployed nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles and bombers) at 700.
Hiding in the background during this entire time was the INF Treaty, which served as the foundation for every nuclear disarmament agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia that followed. By the time the inspection provisions of the INF Treaty expired in 2000, however, the world had changed. The withdrawal of the United States from the ABM Treaty, combined with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, and the decision to deploy American missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, had fundamentally altered the geopolitical reality in Europe. The development of advanced INF-type weapons by Iran, North Korea and China was viewed by many in the Russian military as a threat for which Russia had no adequate response, given the limitations imposed on it by the INF Treaty. Likewise, Russia’s reliance upon tactical nuclear weapons as a check toward NATO military expansion along its borders was viewed by many in the United States as an attempt by Russia to exploit the massive reduction of American strategic nuclear capability brought about under New START, for which the United States likewise had no adequate response given INF Treaty restrictions. This antipathy toward New START on the part of the incoming administration of President Trump was made clear when, during his initial telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin after his inauguration, Trump put Putin on notice that the United States was not interested in extending New START, which the American President described as a “bad deal.”
In 2008, the United States detected a test launch of a Russian cruise missile. The cruise missile flew for a range of nearly 2,000 kilometers. There was uncertainty on the part of American intelligence analysts as to what it was they had detected—if the cruise missile was a designed for use on a naval vessel, and used a launch platform solely intended to test such a missile, then the activity observed was in compliance with the INF Treaty, which did not ban either sea- or air-launched cruise missiles. The data obtained by the United States was ambiguous, but after three years of additional investigation, the U.S. intelligence community was convinced that what it had observed was a test of an experimental ground launched cruise missile—the 9M729—which made the test a violation of the INF Treaty. This assessment was briefed to Congress in 2011, before being presented to the Russians in 2013. Russia denied that it had committed any treaty violation, and demanded that the United States provide specific information to back up its claims. This the Obama administration refused to do, instead formally notifying Congress in 2014, and every year since then, that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty.
The specificity of the charge, as articulated by Christopher Ford in his talk at the Wilson Center, carries with it the implication that the information behind the American allegation against Russia is sound. This may not, in fact, be the case. The 9M729 missile is produced by the same Russian company, Novatar, based in Ekaterinburg, that produces the 3M14 sea-launched cruise missiles used by Russia to target opposition forces in Syria. These missiles are closely related in terms of design and technology, and the 3M14 was developed along a parallel timetable as the 9M729. The fact that the United States monitored a test of the 9M729 in September 2015 that flew less than 300 kilometers, thereby making it compliant with the INF Treaty, raises the possibility that the U.S. intelligence community confused a test of the 3M14 with the 9M729 back in 2008, and that Russia has not, in fact, violated the INF Treaty.
Rather than find a mutually acceptable resolution to this problem, however, both the United States and Russia seem inclined to let the INF Treaty collapse. Russia has deployed at least two battalions of units equipped with the new 9M729 missile; if the 9M729 missile was, in fact, found to be a violation of the INF Treaty, then Russia would need to destroy not only the missiles, but all the launchers as well. Having made the decision to deploy the 9M729 after years of development, it is highly unlikely Russia would suddenly agree to their elimination. What is more likely is that Russia is taking its cue from the U.S. Congress, which in the 2018 Defense Authorization Act has set aside money for the U.S. military to use in developing missile systems with a range between 300-5,000 kilometers to counter the new Russian 9M729. Russia seems intent on provoking the United States into withdrawing from the INF Treaty, something the Trump administration, with the assistance of Congress, appears only too willing to consider. The end result would be the worsening of relations between the United States and Europe, and the start of a new arms race that would find the United States at a distinct disadvantage, given Russia’s seeming head start.
The biggest casualty, however, would be arms control. The demise of the INF Treaty would undo the very fabric of nuclear disarmament that has been at the foundation of U.S.-Russian relations since the 1960’s. There would be little chance of extending New START, let alone negotiating something in its stead. The death of arms control would return the world back to the days of mutually assured destruction, when nuclear forces stood on hair-trigger alert—something that would not bode well for the fate of the world, given the sorry state of U.S.-Russian relations today.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. He is the author of Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War(Clarity Press, 2017).