The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty (INF), agreed by American President Ronald Reagan and the USSR’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, has been suspended both by the United States and Russia. Vladimir Putin says he will not negotiate the matter, and the treaty’s six-month notice clause means it will be canceled by summer. But the treaty was a product of its time – and times change.
The 1980s were some of the coldest moments of the Cold War, and there was an almost equal freeze between the United States and its NATO allies over the basing of Pershing II missiles in Europe (responding to the Soviet deployment SS-20 mobile multiple warhead nuclear missiles.) That the Cold War would be over in only a few years, that Soviet communism would collapse, that the Warsaw Pact would disintegrate, was unimaginable.
But even then, the Cold War had passed its peak. The USSR was near the end of its Afghan war and the country was reeling under the pressure of costs and casualties. American precision man-carried ground to air missiles were decimating Russia’s powerful helicopter gunships, and coffins were piling up. The Russian economy was in shambles, and the American challenge to Russian military power was starting to be overwhelming. Reagan answered Russian long-range missiles with the Strategic Defense Initiative and threatened to saturate Russia’s air defenses with ground, air and sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads. Gorbachev knew Russia, despite having invested nearly 20% of the nation’s GDP in nuclear and conventional weapons, was stumbling. He was looking for a way to lower the arms race with the United States and end the Western embargo on technology that was impeding Russia’s development.
The INF treaty itself consisted of three parts: a Memorandum of Understanding on Data (MOU), a Protocol on Inspections, and a Protocol on Elimination. The MOU was a comprehensive exchange on missile and systems agreed to under the Treaty, exchanged on the day of the signing. For the United States, the INF was exceptionally important because the Russians agreed to scrap their SS-20 mobile nuclear missiles and the US agreed to eliminate its Pershing and nuclear-capable cruise missiles. Germany, not a signatory, agreed to eliminate its 72 Pershing missiles, facilitating the deal. A total of 2,692 missiles were eliminated.
Russia’s weakened military position made the deal possible. But today, Russia is back and it cheats. Putin’s presidency, beginning in 2000, has seen a much more aggressive Russia putting pressure on NATO and the US, trying to regain some of the Soviet Union’s lost territories (Crimea and parts of Ukraine), and once again adventurous overseas, especially in Syria. Because Russia is still financially constrained, much of the focus has been on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Violating the INF treaty and challenging the US and NATO’s cohesion, Russia is building new intermediate-range nuclear cruise missiles aimed at Europe.
Russia’s military strategy evolved to emphasize new precision weapons and new tactical as well as strategic nuclear weapons, seeking to confront what they claim to be an aggressive NATO. New weapons include the longer-range cruise missile known as the SSC-8 or R-500 (part of the 9M729 Iskander-K cruise missile system), intended to destroy high-value point targets of NATO, in particular, the anti-ballistic missile systems the US has deployed in Romania, at sea to protect Poland, and soon to be on Polish territory. The US and NATO believe the R-500 exceeds INF Treaty limits that restrict missiles (including cruise missiles) that fly between 500 and 3,000 km.
The R-500 is based on the Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile launched from ships or submarines. The Russians showed off the Kalibr by using it in Syria and making sure videos were widely distributed in high definition. The missile, which flies very low and is guided by a terrain mapping system and Russia’s GLONASS GPS system, is made in the same factory as the Kalibr.
The Russians have bitterly complained about the American deployment of ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe while building the R-500 to knock out those ABM sites. The US claims the sites are not aimed at Russia, but at Iran. The Russians don’t believe it, particularly as Poland is buying the US PAC-3 missile defense system because of Russia.
The US understands the changed strategic environment and the challenge to European stability and NATO itself.
While Russia is challenging the United States, the US must also shore up its ability to deal with a more antagonistic China. For American military planners who have to consider how to deal with thousands of Chinese intermediate range ballistic missiles, the INF is an undesirable deal because its impact is global and not just European.
While China had “voluntarily” agreed to be part of the original Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), though not any revisions, it is not an INF signatory. It is building strategic and tactical nuclear systems without even the pretense of restraint. On the other hand, adherence to the INF prevents the US from developing weapons and delivery systems – including nuclear – to offset China’s growing power and threats to immediate neighbors.
In America’s eyes, China is an aggressively rising military power. It is seen as a growing threat to America’s Pacific allies and friends, including South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan; China is aiming to push the United States out of those countries. The key for China is to challenge American maritime superiority and particularly America’s ability to deploy aircraft carriers in the area of the island chains China claims, including the Ryukyu Arc (琉球弧 Ryūkyū-ko), which includes Okinawa and Taiwan.
China’s militarization of South China Sea islands and reefs today threatens vital sea lanes, and the first brigade of China’s DF-26 “carrier buster” is now deployed. The DF-26 is an intermediate range two-stage ballistic missile with a range of 3,000 to 4,000 km and can reach as far as Guam.
The US has been complaining about Russian INF Treaty violations for the past four years, but the 2017 Russian deployment of the R-500 led directly to the collapse of the Treaty. While no-one knows where Putin will take Russia in the future, the immediate result is asymmetrical: the Russians have lost whatever protections they had from a functional INF deal; and the United States is free of the INF to pursue the growing military challenge from China.
The INF will fall into the dustbin of history, another casualty of the end of the Cold War nuclear bargain (as were SALT I, SALT II, START, and the ABM Treaty). For the US it is not a bad thing; for America’s Pacific allies it is a good thing. For Russia it is more isolation and less engagement. For now.