Missile Misdemeanours: Russia and the INF Treaty Contents


The INF Treaty is a landmark Cold War arms control agreement in response to Soviet deployment of a new generation of intermediate-range nuclear missiles—the SS-20s—from the mid-1970s. Through a co-ordinated policy of diplomatic and military responses, NATO was able to meet this challenge and bring the Soviet Union to the negotiating table. The resulting treaty abolished an entire category of land-based nuclear missiles and prohibited their future development by Russia or the United States. The agreement remains central to nuclear arms control. At some point in the mid to late 2000s, the Russian Government decided to develop and later deploy a missile system—the SSC-8—which clearly violated the Treaty.

Successive US administrations over a number of years have sought to bring Russia back into compliance, but each attempt has been met with flat denial and total intransigence. The US announcement that it is now seeking to withdraw from the Treaty is a justified response to Russia’s continuing violation. For several years, NATO has shown increasing concern at Russia’s activities and has now come to a unanimous view in support of the US analysis and its determination to confront the issue. The British Government is right to support this strong collective position. Whilst at every point a diplomatic solution has been and continues to be sought, an essentially bilateral Treaty that has been rendered inoperative by its violation by one party should not be saved at any cost. International arms control relies on adherence to reciprocal obligations and nations should not be required to subject themselves to unilateral observance of them. Arms control more generally is undermined by violation going unchallenged.

There are no straightforward options for saving the Treaty in its current form and any attempt to replace it must be underpinned by robust and continuing verification requirements. However, a change in Russia’s policy on adherence to such agreements would be a necessary prerequisite.

While the security situation in Asia is a factor in both Russian and American nuclear policy, we reject the claims that the US is content to see the Treaty collapse, or has deliberately engineered this because it wishes to deploy missiles in Asia against a growing threat from China. The US has at every stage shown willingness to continue fulfilling its obligations under the Treaty if Russia returns to compliance. Indeed, even now the US has offered to halt the economic and military steps it has begun taking, if Russia returns to compliance. If the Treaty fails, the sole responsibility for its failure will lie with Russia, and any Russian attempts to manipulate the narrative to suggest otherwise must be strongly resisted. We urge the UK Government to persuade the US to use every opportunity, in international fora such as the United Nations, relentlessly to expose and publicise the evidence of Russia’s systematic violation of the Treaty.

NATO is now considering what further steps to take to maintain security and deterrence, and what military options should be part of this process. It is right that there is a detailed collective and consultative discussion within NATO covering a wide range of options. A response need not entail new ground-launched missile deployments in Europe. Instead, NATO should consider augmenting its existing strengths in sea- and air-launched systems to neutralise any advantage that Russia might hope to gain from its decision to violate the INF Treaty by developing and deploying the SSC-8 ground-launched system.

Published: 4 April 2019