Scott Ritter decries the de facto death of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, also known as the INF Treaty, in his excellent piece in The American Conservative. But by now, anyone with even a rudimentary background in international politics and military affairs knows very well that most arms limitations treaties with the United States are not worth the paper on which they were written. It is specifically in this field, arms limitations, where the United States serves as Exhibit A of a treaty un-worthy party. The INF Treaty was hailed as a milestone in arms limitations in the late 1980s. Even a Tony and Pulitzer nominated play A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing described the circumstances leading to the signing of this treaty. But that is the end of any connection with the strategic reality about the first major Soviet-American nuclear arms reduction treaty of the Gorbachev period.
Despite Gorbachev’s claims of the elimination of the whole class of nuclear weapons, since that treaty’s signing one fact of the negotiations and agreement remains often overlooked. Gorbachev singled out Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons from the larger framework of the Soviet-American arms limitations negotiations, the main course of which was SDI, known as Star Wars and the 1972 ABM Treaty. Ground based interceptors, as envisioned by SDI, would violate this key 1972 agreement on the limits of the ground-based anti-ballistic missiles interceptors allowed for deployment by both the United States and the Soviet Union.
Mikhail Gorbachev, a man of a very limited, if any, grasp of strategic reality and military-technological issues, as events of the last 30 years demonstrated so dramatically, even today loves to use the allegory of the American short and medium range missiles being a “gun aimed at the Soviet Union’s temple.” He still uses this allegory for the justification of signing this rather humiliating 1988 treaty for the Soviet Union—the USSR destroyed roughly two and a half times more short and medium range missiles than did the United States. Of course, the technological and strategic reality was far more complex than Gorbachev’s primitive “temple” analogy and the Soviet Union did have all means necessary for being in a position to respond and bargain for a much better deal. For that Gorbachev and his circle of confidants needed only to talk to their military people.
This failure to bargain does explain Gorbachev, Shevardnadze and their “team” being extremely unwelcoming of Soviet military professionals during April 1987 negotiations with Americans. In fact, the Soviet military was excluded from negotiations altogether—a first indicator of shady intentions on Gorbachev’s part. The compromise reached was so one-sided that even Gorbachev himself started to feel very uncomfortable. He expressed his concerns to…US Secretary of State George Shultz, instead of conferring with his own military.
In fact, Gorbachev’s behavior was absolutely bizarre and betrayed for any trained eye his desperate desire to be liked by the combined West regardless of costs for his own country. It was also then that Gorbachev and his circle started to propagate absolutely mindless, completely off the wall figures for Soviet military expenditures and the costs of War in Afghanistan which since then have been debunked by many serious economic and military scholars, thus confirming what many suspected all along—Gorbachev was merely making numbers up in order to promote his disastrous reforms. The INF Treaty, despite its obvious lop-sidedness, was one of many political measures Gorbachev needed to undertake to at least show something up as an achievement against the background of an increasing economic crisis in the Soviet Union, much of which was spurred by his incompetence.
But the deal was done and the treaty was signed. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and until the mid-1990s the INF Treaty simply faded into the background of events in the post-Soviet Russia and Europe. Yet, today, in 2017, the INF Treaty is a hot topic again. Here are some crucial background facts for understanding the fate of the INF Treaty. Several factors must be considered before forecasting where the whole situation with the INF is going now and why the United States is currently fabricating the case that Russia is violating the parameters of a Treaty that doesn’t allow ground-based missiles, both ballistic and cruise, with ranges of between 500 and 5500 kilometers. Some of those factors are:
- The United States leaving the 1972 ABM Treaty in 2001;
- NATO’s continued expansion eastward to Russia’s borders starting in 1999;
- NATO’s (mostly US) aggression against Yugoslavia, 1999;
- Actual moves to deploy Aegis Ashore in Poland and Romania;
- The Iraq War.
All these listed factors have two things in common. One is that NATO has violated several treaties and tacit understandings that were viewed by the Russians as keys to Russia’s national security. The other, however, is even more important—while all those events, from bombing Yugoslavia to destabilizing Middle East, starting from the ill-conceived military adventure in Iraq, were unfolding, Russia was continuously viewed in the US as a declining economic and military power whose status, the way it was defined in Washington D.C., made any serious treaties with her irrelevant for the American vision of a new world. Russia was viewed as inherently weak; Russian concerns were simply dismissed out of hand. There also was a condescending attitude towards Russia’s military technology, which were viewed as no match for American systems.
Reality, of course, turned out to be completely different. How the US establishment “analysts” missed this rather obvious fact is a matter of a separate discussion on the real merits of US analytical community which consistently fails to reconcile itself with the facts on the ground, but Russia’s demonstration of her technological capability first in Crimea (and Donbas) and, in the end, in a dramatic fashion in Syria, made a huge impression on the United States.
The INF Treaty specifically forbids ground-based cruise missiles from being deployed in Europe. For the United States, which is the greatest naval power of the modern age and is used to thinking within the framework of MK 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) with dozens of cells on all major US Navy’s surface combatants, such as destroyers of the Arleigh Burke-class, the whole notion of many small surface ships armed with extremely capable long-range land attack cruise missiles sounds like anathema. Yet, there they were, those small ships which unleashed a salvo of 3M14 (Kalibr family) missiles on October 8, 2015, from the Caspian Sea. Salvos of even greater than 3M14 range X-101 air-launched missiles followed. All of those missiles were compliant with the INF Treaty. It is in this segment of the missile technology where the United States suddenly found itself lagging. In some cases the lag was critical.
Russia simply outmatched the United States, which is not a secret to anyone who attentively observed Russia for the last few decades. What the war in Syria demonstrated was that Russia simply didn’t need land-based intermediate range missiles—she could unleash massive conventional or nuclear salvos from the sea and the air. This capability puts Russia at a distinct advantage over NATO in Europe, should NATO decide to act recklessly. The way Russia constructs her A2/AD (Anti-Access, Area Denial) capability already today leaves very little chance for the US Navy to launch its TLAMs at any Russian coastal, let alone inland targets—the range is simply not there for TLAMs, without putting their carriers, from destroyers to submarines, at a mortal risk of being destroyed. This is not a reality the United States wants or can face. The only way to counter Russia, in Washington’s mind, was to shorten the flight time of the American missiles to Russia. This can be done only if they are launched from continental Europe and that means those missiles, both cruise and ballistic, being ground-based. This means the violation of the INF Treaty.
To do so, the United States needed to accuse Russia of such a violation—a pretty standard MO for Pentagon and the US mass-media. The United States continues to use the Cold War 1.0 playbook, thinking that it knows how the Cold War 1.0 worked—it doesn’t. Very wrong lessons have been learned from the Cold War. The United States was lucky to get an ultimately ambitious and incompetent group of people headed by Gorbachev in power in 1980s. American power elites, which still largely reside in the perpetual Chalabi moment, still think that they can make a “case” conflating totally legitimate and compliant 3M14 cruises missile with 9M729 missile. As Ritter notes:
The specificity of the charge, as articulated by Christopher Ford in his talk at the Wilson Center, carries with it the implication that the information behind the American allegation against Russia is sound. This may not, in fact, be the case. The 9M729 missile is produced by the same Russian company, Novator, based in Ekaterinburg, that produces the 3M14 sea-launched cruise missiles used by Russia to target opposition forces in Syria. These missiles are closely related in terms of design and technology, and the 3M14 was developed along a parallel timetable as the 9M729. The fact that the United States monitored a test of the 9M729 in September 2015 that flew less than 300 kilometers, thereby making it compliant with the INF Treaty, raises the possibility that the U.S. intelligence community confused a test of the 3M14 with the 9M729 back in 2008, and that Russia has not, in fact, violated the INF Treaty.
For the US, the death of INF Treaty is needed for exploitation of an “opening” which the alleged breach by the Russians provides and which the US thinks it can be successful in gaining massive strategic benefits from. The United States thinks that positioning ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at Russia in Europe will achieve the same effect as had happened with Gorbachev. That is what the Cold War 1.0 American playbook says. Obviously, it is not going to work as no US attempts at taming Russia did since 2008. But Washington doesn’t learn, it is incapable of doing so. The new military construct is not going to work for two reasons:
- Unlike Gorbachev in 1980s, the current Russian leadership does defer to its own military professionals when considering its responses. As an example, the name of Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov is one of the most mentioned in Western media. It shows the degree of prominence that the Russian military plays in formulation of defense policies. Most importantly, unlike Gorbachev’s incompetent clique, the current Russian leadership is, indeed, competent and Putin or Shoigu are not even trying to be liked by the combined West. Their only concern is Russia.
- Russia does have an edge over the United States in a number of crucial military technologies, especially missile and anti-missile ones. I would go as far as to suggest that in some technologies the gap will grow dramatically. Unlike it in 1987 with Gorbachev, who simply ignored any competent advice from his military people, who pointed out that inexpensive responses were already there for both American intermediate range weapons and even SDI, the current Russian leadership knows that technological responses are in place already.
That is why the news of INF being on the chopping block is received in Russia with a degree of resignation, despite the expected official rhetoric in favor of preservation of this Treaty. The Russians in general know that any arms treaty with the US will be no good one way or another, so why bother. As was stated already, the US elites are trying to reuse Cold War 1.0 playbook and it is not working. If the Treaty will be killed, Russia will have no serious problems in addressing possible deployment of the American ground based systems—the MK 41s in Romania are totally capable of launching TLAMs already—by either increasing the range of existing systems such as Iskander or producing newer and more capable ones.
A New Russian State Defense Order emphasizes further development and procurement of SMART, high precision stand-off weapons, including ones using new physical principles. Meanwhile the stockpile of Russian cruise missiles is growing and also growing are capabilities in anti-missile defenses, with the S-500 slated to go into operation by 2020, as one of many systems already in place capable to dramatically reduce effectiveness of any salvo by any means at Russia proper, while simultaneously providing a devastating response. Gorbachev never even bothered to learn what real capabilities his military had and what the real balance sheet was—we all know the result. Putin and his circle know their capabilities extremely well, they also know that the United Sates cannot be trusted. That is why there will be no repeat of the Cold War 1.0 with or without INF Treaty. There will be no American “gun aimed at the Russia’s temple”, in fact, the opposite scenario is being written. That is why the United States is so desperate for any measure to free itself from any arms limitation obligations thinking it still has a chance—it doesn’t.