Russia Violates the INF Treaty, but Its Cancelling Won’t Help

  • Petr Boháček
  • 4.2.2019 07:45

Donald Trump’s administration is withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a major 1987 agreement between the US and the USSR (now Russia) significantly limiting their ballistic and cruise missiles and launchers. The argument is clear. What is the treaty for when Russia is not complying with it? The US is also concerned with the limits the INF puts on their ability to deter China, a non-member to the Treaty. The withdrawal, however, will not help either of these issues.

Dropping a multilateral agreement that sets out certain norms and a security regime will rather worsen the prospects of fulfilling these goals. The US, as well as Europe, would have a much bigger chance to pressure Russia into not developing intermediate to medium ballistic missiles if the regime was preserved. Yet, anything but bilateral cooperation in which the bigger country always has a better negotiating position and norms in general certainly do not fit the current US foreign policy. We thus return to the old realpolitik of big powers. The biggest losers of such an international environment are small and medium states.

It is true that the arsenal of Chinese ballistic missiles is extensive, and should Beijing be a part of such a treaty, it would have to get rid of a majority of them. It would be another illusion that China would agree to this, concerning their core security interests in the South China Sea. What is doubtful is the negative impact that the INF Treaty has on diminishing the American deterrent towards China and the ability to protect American territory or assets in the Pacific region. The US forces have built a significant and similar capability with Tomahawk and JASSM INF-compliant weapon systems, they possess superior conventional strength and the Treaty does not limit long-range missiles.


Such steps are slowly dismantling the regime and norms of disarmament and put us several decades back.


The United States could have put themselves in a better position if they agreed to mutual technical inspections and debate initiated by the Russians. According to Washington, Moscow has been violating the Treaty with the 9M729 missiles since 2014, as proclaimed by the Obama administration. The weapons were deployed according to US claims by 2017. Russia has tested it in the range below 500 km from a mobile naval launcher but also with the range above 500 km in the ground-based format. Each deployment individually does not violate the INF. If the same weapon, however, has the capability to reach over 500 km and can be launched from a mobile sea-based facility, such capability does constitute an INF Treaty violation. Yet, the technical presentation orchestrated by Kremlin that focused on detailed description and demonstration of the fuel tanks of the 9M729 and smaller 9M728 missiles certainly did nothing to present concrete arguments and evidence to counter the accusation of Russian violations.

On the other side, the US weapon that is according to Moscow breaking the Treaty is a component of NATO’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system that is based for example in Romania. However, this is a vertical launch system for interceptors, these are kinetic projectiles that kill by impact incoming hostile missiles for defense. They do not carry explosive and are incapable of mounting nuclear payload. Yet, the unwillingness of Washington to engage in a real technical presentation or demonstration of the Mk-41 system opened the door for criticism of their withdrawal, despite the fact that Russia is the side violating the deal.


The EU should look to launch a new diplomatic initiative on disarmament.


There is not a reason for Moscow to stand up to its pledges and uphold the limits since the US leaves the regime. For China, adopting an agreement as tough as the INF is unlikely. Should Donald Trump win the 2020 elections, we can expect him to leave the New START treaty on strategic nuclear arms reduction without a renewal. Such steps are slowly dismantling the regime and norms of disarmament and put us several decades back.

However, it is Europe that would be threatened the most by the development of Russia intermediate and middle range ballistic missile and the weakening of multilateralism in the world. The EU should look to launch a new diplomatic initiative on disarmament. This will not work if Europe does not find a way to include and articulate US interests in such attempts, meaning including China or Iran. The Union has demonstrated a clear diplomatic capability in this area in the past. A mere triggering of such a dialogue should be a positive step towards international stability and security.


About author: Petr Boháček


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