President Reagan signs the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

President Reagan signs the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Bob Daugherty/AP

When Russia Violates Nuclear Treaties, Let's Act Like Reagan

We have nothing to gain by pulling out of our nuclear treaty with Russia. By Joe Cirincione and Lauren Mladenka

Russia has violated an arms control treaty. It is not the first time they – or we – have done so. The key now is to get them back in line and prevent them from fielding any new nuclear missiles that would threaten our closest allies. Some arms control critics want to use the issue as an excuse to jettison a system of arms restraints carefully constructed over the decades. Before letting loose the wrecking ball, they should check in with one of the principle architects of the regime and one of the toughest and most pro-arms control presidents in U.S. history: Ronald Reagan.

This is, after all, an apparent violation of a treaty that President Reagan negotiated with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Their 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty banned all ground-based short, medium and intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles. These are missiles between 500 and 5,500 kilometers range.  United States officials say they have compelling evidence that Russia tried to test secretly a cruise missile at ranges prohibited by the agreement. We caught them. But does this mean the treaty didn’t work?

Reagan’s INF treaty has been one of the most successful treaties in history. It was the first to reduce, rather than limit, nuclear weapons. And it did so in dramatic fashion, eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons with the verified destruction of 2,692 missiles by the implementation deadline of June 1991.

The pact greatly reduced the possibility that the Soviets would be able use nuclear weapons to strike targets in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, most of Asia, and Alaska. It decreased tensions between the superpowers, increased global stability and paved the way for Reagan’s sweeping START treaty that slashed U.S. and Soviet long-range nuclear forces by a whopping 50 percent.

Now comes this new test of the treaty’s viability. Obama administration officials have known about the issue for some time, but first publically warned of the violation in January. A congressionally-required report on compliance with all arms control treaties now being delivered to Capitol Hill confirms the violation, as first reported by the New York Times.

Arms control skeptics want to use the violation as an excuse to scrap the whole treaty.  They may hope that this brings down the entire arms control scaffolding, freeing up the United States to build and deploy more nuclear weapons. In March, Reps. Mike Rogers R-Ala., Ted Poe, R-Tex., and Denny Heck, D-Wa., introduced a resolution questioning whether sticking with the INF treaty is in the security interests of the United States. They want to bar any further arms reductions until Russia complies with the treaty. Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., introduced similar language in a Senate resolution.

It’s a familiar position for conservatives. In 2001, Gary Schmitt, then at the Project for the New American Century, explained the opposition in a memorandum to policy makers. “Conservatives don’t like arms control agreements for the simple reason that they rarely, if ever, increase U.S. security,” he said, “The real issue here, and the underlying question, is whether the decades-long effort to control the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them through arms control treaties has in fact worked.” He contended that it was no longer “plausible to argue that our overall security was best served by a web of parchment accords, and not our own military capabilities.”

But this was never President Reagan’s approach. He actually caught Moscow cheating on the Anti-Ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty. That agreement, negotiated in 1972 by President Richard Nixon, limited each nation to one ABM interceptor deployment area, with large phased array radars, or LPARs, located outside of those areas in the periphery of the nation’s territory, and outwardly oriented.

U.S. intelligence found that Russia was constructing an inwardly-oriented LPAR in central Siberia – meaning that it could be used to guide anti-missile interceptors and was, thus, a treaty violation.

President Reagan rightly concluded that while this was a serious issue it did not give the Russian a strategic advantage. It was not worth abandoning the treaty’s restraints. He continued to observe the terms of the ABM Treaty while pressing the Soviet Union to come back into compliance.

Reagan said, in advice that resonates across the decades, “No violations of a treaty can be considered to be a minor matter, nor can there be confidence in agreements if a country can pick and choose which provisions of an agreement it will comply with… correcting their violations will be a true test of Soviet willingness to enter a more constructive relationship and broaden the basis for cooperation between our two countries on security matters.”

His approach worked. The Soviets eventually admitted the violation and dismantled the system in 1990. More importantly, Reagan continued to pursue other arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, including the landmark INF Treaty.

This still makes sense today. Pulling out of a treaty that blocks the Russians from deploying weapons that we don’t have and don’t need would be foolish. “Releasing Russia from existing limits on strategic nuclear forces makes no sense, especially at this time of severe tensions between the West and the Kremlin,” says Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association.

Stephen Rademaker, who was assistant secretary of state for International Security and Nonproliferation in the Bush administration, agrees. Seemingly channeling Reagan, Rademaker told the House Armed Services Committee, “For the United States to declare that we are pulling out of the treaty in response to what Russia has done would actually be welcome in Moscow because they are wrestling with the question of how they terminate..We shouldn’t make it any easier for them. We should force them to take the onus of that.”

The Russians have their own complaints about us. We have actually built a brand-new intermediate-range missile. But we don’t call it a missile. We call it a target and use it to test our anti-ballistic missile interceptors in the Pacific. The Russians think it violates the treaty; we disagree.

“In the history of U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian arms control there have been dozens of similar cases—both parties have raised concern about the actions of the other,” note treaty experts Nikolai Sokov and Miles Pomper. “The majority of these concerns remained unresolved for years until they lost relevance. As a rule, these are technical issues that are discussed by technical experts outside public eye.”

That, rather than a conspiracy to appease Russia or a plan to now pressure Russia, explains why information about this violation (and concerns about other Russian systems) stayed inside the system for so long. Concerns are raised privately in hope of resolving them. When that fails, they are made public. When that fails tougher diplomacy is tried.

This violation is more than a technical violation, but since it is not an immediate threat to the U.S. or our allies, there is time to use the established arms control mechanism to pressure Russia to halt the cruise missile program, verifiably dismantle any missiles tested in violation of the limits and agree to abide by the treaty’s terms.

We have nothing to gain from pulling out of the INF treaty. We already have long-range nuclear weapons trained on hundreds of targets in Russia. We don’t need a few dozen more. If we built new intermediate-range missiles, where would we deploy them?  Europe? That would be a good idea -- if one wanted to revive the mass nuclear disarmament movement.

The last time we tried that, millions of citizens took to the streets of Europe in protest of U.S. and Russian weapons. One of us worked the issue in the mid-1980s for the Reagan Administration from his position in the U.S. Information Agency. It was by far the most controversial U.S. policy among Europeans, generating more opposition than even the U.S. interventions in Central America.

There is no reason to revisit the failed policies of the past. Instead, Congress could back the administration’s efforts and add some clout by confirming into office the man in charge of verifying Russian compliance with arms control treaties.

Frank Rose has been patiently waiting more than one year – 384 days – to be confirmed in his post as the assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance. This position is responsible for the Annual Report on Compliance report that is the source of this violation news. It might be nice to end the petty congressional politics and put him in office so he can actually do something about the violations that so concern Members.

We have cajoled the Russians back into compliance before and – with the right staff in place and a united approach – we can do it again. In the process, we can prevent the Russians from rebuilding the weapons that Ronald Reagan so painstakingly destroyed.

Joe Cirincione is president and Lauren Mladenka a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund. 

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