Russia violated our nuclear arms treaty. Here's how we respond.
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In July 2014, the United States declared that Russia had violated the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) by flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.  

Despite years of intense diplomacy by the Obama administration, Russia has shown no readiness to return to compliance. When repeatedly confronted with U.S. intelligence evidence, the Russians have pretended that the illegal missile simply does not exist.

As the New York Times reported in February, Russia has now moved forward with deployment of the new GLCM in Western Russia, increasing the threat to U.S. Allies and forces in Europe. 

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While we continue to favor diplomatic efforts to convince Russia to comply with the INF Treaty, the time has come for a strong — but proportional — response to Russia’s violation. This response should neutralize any strategic advantage Moscow might hope to gain, while maintaining the cohesion of our vital alliances. 

 

The INF Treaty is not merely a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia, but a cornerstone of security and stability for our allies in Europe and Asia. Therefore, our response should be developed in close coordination with our allies — especially our European allies — involved in collective nuclear planning through NATO. Indeed, we should ask our NATO allies to share the burden in implementing our response.

From a diplomatic perspective, we can best maintain allied cohesion by taking measures that are compliant with the INF Treaty, ensuring it is the Russians who continue to bear sole responsibility for undermining it.

Russia had the option to legally withdraw from the treaty, but chose not to exercise this option as the United States did when it legally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. Instead, Russia chose to violate the treaty in secret, perhaps hoping to avoid the political fallout from withdrawing openly, but was caught. There is no reason to let them off the hook. 

There are several effective measures we can take while holding the political high ground. First, the administration should move forward with modernization of U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems, especially the new air-launched nuclear cruise missile, known as the Long-range Stand-off system (LRSO).  

Russia is developing increasingly sophisticated air defense systems. The LRSO will provide us the ability to penetrate these defenses. It will improve our ability to hold critical Russian targets at risk several thousand kilometers inside Russia’s borders, offsetting the deep-strike capability Russia has gained through deploying the illegal intermediate-range GLCM.

Second, we and our allies should also improve our air- and sea-launched, conventional strike capabilities. The United States should develop a conventional variant of the LRSO, to deliver conventional payloads in heavily-contested air defense environments from stand-off range.  

We should help allies improve their air- and sea-launched conventional strike capabilities by facilitating sales of the extended-range variant of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER) and sea-based Tomahawk cruise missile.

Third, we should remind Russia that NATO remains a nuclear alliance with the capabilities and the political resolve to counter the increased nuclear threat posed by Russia’s illegal cruise missile. At the Warsaw Summit last July, NATO leaders endorsed a number of actions to bolster allied nuclear planning and readiness.  

NATO should implement these initiatives and make clear that Moscow should have no illusion it could succeed in employing limited nuclear strikes to “de-escalate” a conventional conflict.

Fourth, United States and NATO should deploy limited defenses against cruise missiles to protect key alliance assets in the event of conflict with Russia, degrading the effectiveness of Russia’s illegal GLCM. However, we should not reorient NATO’s ballistic missile defenses toward Russia (and away from countering Iran and other Middle Eastern threats); this would be extremely expensive and technologically challenging, and could undermine strategic stability.

All these steps are permissible under the INF and New Strategic Arms Reduction (New START) treaties and would build upon existing capabilities and programs. We do not recommend that the United States develop and deploy its own intermediate-range GLCM to counter Russia’s violation.  

Beyond the high cost and long lead-time this would entail, a U.S. request to deploy an intermediate -range GLCM in Europe could generate strong political opposition, as we saw in the early 1980s, and provide an opening for Russian wedge-driving. U.S. and allied military requirements can be met with air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, with less risk of political controversy.

Nor do we support withdrawing from New START or other arms control agreements in response to the Russians’ INF Treaty violation. Russia remains in compliance with the ceilings and verification requirements of New START. Continued implementation of the treaty is in U.S. national security interests, and unilateral U.S. withdrawal would cause high anxiety among our allies.  

If issues of non-compliance with New START arise, they can be addressed through the mechanisms established by the treaty.

 

Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He served as U.S. ambassador to NATO (1998-2001); to the Russian Federation (2001-05); and to the Republic of Korea (2005-08). He was the deputy secretary general of NATO from February 2012 to October 2016.

Frank A. Rose is a nonresident senior fellow for the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Rose served as assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance from 2014-17. From 2009 to 2014, Rose served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy.


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