As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Moscow on Oct. 12 to meet with her Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin again raised the prospect of his country's withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, suggesting the treaty should become global. Putin's statement could signal the beginning of the end of the Cold War-era rigid arms control treaties.
As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Moscow on Oct. 12 for a few days of talks with Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov on Cold War-era treaties and U.S. ballistic missile defense efforts in Central Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that his country will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) unless it becomes a global treaty. INF — which prohibits the development and deployment of all land-based short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with ranges of between 300 and 3,400 miles, as well as all ground-launched cruise missiles — has become a military liability for Moscow. Russia is now surrounded by IRBMs, from China to India to Pakistan, not to mention non-nuclear IRBMs in North Korea and Iran. This imbalance has left Russia in an uncomfortable spot. Though Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are largely capable of hitting its IRBM-armed neighbors, ICBMs have large minimum ranges that limit their engagement envelopes. More significantly, they are phenomenally expensive compared with intermediate-range and shorter-range ballistic missiles. Moscow cannot afford to match the IRBMs on its periphery with an aging and shrinking Russian ICBM force that now numbers less than 500 and is dropping. (And numerical parity has always been a key element of Russian defense thinking.) This weekend's negotiations are certainly a proximate cause for the announcement, and Putin is deadly serious. He has no interest in sustaining his country's commitment to a Cold War-era treaty unless Washington is willing to do something meaningful in return. In short, Russian cooperation has a price. A globalized INF, however, would be unlikely to gain much traction, even if there were enough of a consensus to give it a try. Thus, Putin's other option is to trade continued participation in INF (which the United States and especially Europe value) for a different goal, such as an extension and subsequent replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I (START I). This carries its own difficulties, since the United States is ready to let START I expire in 2009 as it takes a step away from the rigid Cold War-treaty structure. Putin's withdrawal from INF now appears imminent. The first phase of the negotiations, involving Ivanov himself, already has ended in failure. Barring a weekend breakthrough on the related issues of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the U.S. ballistic missile defense system in Central Europe, this could mark the beginning of the crumbling of rigid arms control treaties that were considered major advances during the Cold War.