Russia has begun to deploy a nuclear-capable, ground-launched cruise missile, contrary to its obligations under the pivotal 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, the New York Times has reported. The Kremlin has long groused about this treaty, which prohibits its development, flight-testing, production, and deployment of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers while states such as China, India, and Pakistan are free to do so.
The Obama administration concluded in earlier annual reports on “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments” that Russia had taken all steps short of deployment of this prohibited missile, then designated as the SSC-X-8. Now that the “X” has been removed from its designation, signaling operational deployment, what is the most effective way for the United States to respond? In attempting to answer this question, let’s consider other ones first.
Is this a material breach of the INF Treaty or merely a “technical” matter? A material breach is defined (in paragraph 3b in Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) as a “violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object and purpose of the treaty.” The SSC-8 deployment certainly qualifies as a material breach, just as the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar qualified as a material breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. (That treaty permitted large phased-array radars on national peripheries to help with early warning, but strictly limited them in the interior at places like Krasnoyarsk where they could presumably be useful for battle management.
If the appearance of the SSC-8 constitutes a material breach, does it warrant U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty? Withdrawal at this point would be unwise. President Ronald Reagan didn’t withdraw from the ABM Treaty because of construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar, opting instead to keep hammering away at the Kremlin to fix the violation. Construction was halted in 1987. Two years later, the Kremlin acknowledged this radar was a violation and took appropriate action.
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Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Defense One on March 3, 2017.