Moscow Has Little Reason to Return to the INF Treaty

President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House on Dec. 8, 1987.

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President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room of the White House on Dec. 8, 1987.

The incentives that led Gorbachev to sign the pact are gone. The U.S. needs to prepare for a post-INF world.

Vladimir Putin says he wants to resolve the latest arms race with the United States. But progress on arms control depends on Russia moving back into compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – and that is supremely unlikely to happen. The incentives that led Mikhail Gorbachev to sign the 1987 treaty – which bans all ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles – no longer apply.

This leaves the United States with no choice but to ready itself and its allies for a post-INF world. While U.S. officials should continue to try to persuade Russia to return to compliance, they have to assume that Moscow will defy any such initiatives. Even as they pursue negotiations in good faith, America and its NATO allies should focus on preparing forces to survive and retaliate against attacks by Russia’s INF-violating weapons. Washington should also sustain research and development of its own conventionally armed ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, or else risk being at an unnecessary military disadvantage, especially in Asia.

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The 1987 INF Treaty marked the first time Washington and Moscow agreed that eliminating an entire class of weapons would improve both sides’ national security. This arms-control breakthrough was made possible in large part by the Soviets’ longstanding fear of a NATO surprise attack. Those fears intensified with the U.S. deployment of Pershing II ballistic missiles (and secondarily, ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles) to Europe, starting in 1983. The Kremlin concluded that these missiles could strike Soviet political and control targets before it could react, leaving the Soviet Union vulnerable to follow-on NATO attacks. The negotiations that led to the INF Treaty’s signing were long and fraught. Yet in 1987, in a move that was unthinkable just a few years prior, Gorbachev endorsed the INF Treaty as a way to reduce this threat of a devastating NATO surprise attack.

But the military arguments that led Gorbachev to sign the INF Treaty are no longer as persuasive in Moscow. The Russians still fear a NATO surprise attack, but the marginal threat posed by ground-launched intermediate-range missiles is significantly less now than in 1987. The United States already deploys air- and sea-launched missiles that can quickly hit Russian targets. And Russian strategists see a future in which hypersonic weapons let America to strike even faster.

From Russia’s perspective, the INF Treaty also limits its ability to defend against any NATO surprise attack. Ground-launched intermediate-range missiles (like the INF-violating Russian Novator 9M729) are more survivable than air- or sea-launched variants and offer strike options that aren’t available with other weapons. In wartime, these missiles could improve Moscow’s ability to disrupt NATO operations in Europe. They would also enable Russia to strike a wider range of European civilian targets in order to fracture NATO. All this feeds Moscow’s view that the strategic benefits of violating the INF Treaty exceed those of compliance.

Furthermore, the political conditions that led to the INF Treaty’s signing no longer obtain in Russia. Gorbachev himself was determined to avert nuclear war and believed in the possibility of arms control. He also had the domestic political capital to make good on that commitment. A budget crisis and a series of Soviet military failures led him to assert influence over arms control skeptics in the Soviet military. He also recruited Politburo support for arms control. Moreover, Gorbachev recognized that the Soviets simply could not afford to match U.S. arms production. As he said privately in 1986, “The United States has an interest in keeping the negotiations machine running idle, while the arms race overburdens our economy…That is why we need a breakthrough; we need the process to start moving.” 

In contrast, Putin has retained a central role for nuclear weapons in Russian foreign policy. Just last March, he touted Russia’s development of several “new” nuclear weapons. The Putin administration is also skeptical of the current arms control regime, which it sees to disproportionately benefit the United States. Finally, Putin has doubled down on military investments despite many of the economic constraints that Gorbachev once saw to favor arms control. So long as these political conditions prevail, it will be more difficult to secure Kremlin support for the INF Treaty now than it was in 1987.

Despite these new dynamics, Washington should maintain efforts to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, not the least to deny Russia a weapon specifically designed to hold Europe hostage. These efforts might include, as Heather Williams suggests, reciprocal inspections of weapons that each side alleges violate the treaty. The United States should also publish and point to evidence of Russia’s violation to bolster allied support for responding to the violation and impose diplomatic costs on Moscow. This will require gathering intelligence on the 9M729 using sources and methods whose revelation would not prohibitively degrade America’s intelligence advantage.

At the same time, U.S. and allied governments should strengthen and expand NATO long-range strike capabilities – including air- and sea-launched cruise missiles – to complicate Russian targeting of NATO offensive forces and assure retaliation against Russian attacks that use INF-violating weapons. They should simultaneously invest in ballistic and cruise missile defenses for critical NATO targets. NATO forces should also be ready to revert to distributed operations once a NATO-Russian conflict begins.

Finally, the United States should continue research and development on conventionally-armed ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. So long as Russia does not reenter compliance with the INF Treaty, and especially if the United States can reveal proof of Russia’s violation, U.S. forces should be able to take advantage of these capabilities. Indeed, as Eric Sayers explains, deploying conventionally-armed ground-launched intermediate-range missiles may be key to reasserting U.S. military superiority in East Asia.

There are many reasons to hope Russia will reenter compliance with the INF Treaty. There is precious little reason, however, to believe that it is likely. The United States should prepare now to defend its interests in a post-INF world.

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