Russia Threatens to Withdraw From Arms Treaties

5 MINS READMar 14, 2014 | 09:07 GMT
Russia Threatens to Withdraw From New START
(Getty Images)
Then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama sign the New START agreement in Prague on April 8, 2010.

As Russia and the West continue to trade threats over the Ukraine crisis, the Russian Defense Ministry has raised the stakes by saying it is considering halting foreign inspections of its strategic nuclear arsenal. If it followed through on the threat, Moscow would be in clear violation of the New START arms control agreement. To this point, most of the threats or enacted measures over the Crimea standoff have centered on economic reprisal, not anything that could affect security. Russia certainly has concerns about New START and other weapons treaties with the West, but it has no intention of withdrawing and rekindling an arms race it may not be able to afford.

Russia has threatened in the past to break or withdraw from New START or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, which differs from New START in that it bans ground-based intermediate-range missiles (500-5,500 kilometers, or 300-3,400 miles) of the nuclear and the conventional sort. As early as November 2011, then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev threatened to withdraw from New START, which was signed in April 2010, over differences with the United States regarding the U.S. anti-ballistic missile plans in Russia's periphery.

Not Just Politics

Russia has genuine concerns about the arms control agreements. One issue — also a worry for the United States — is that the treaties do not apply to third-party states such as China. Given the massive nuclear advantage that Russia and the United States both have over the rest of the world, this is not yet a serious concern as it relates to New START. (China's rapid military rise and lack of transparency about its military programs, including its nuclear forces, are admittedly increasingly worrisome for Moscow and Washington.) Russia also maintains a large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons that can be used against conventional threats within its borders without needing to employ its strategic arsenal.

On the matter of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, or INF, it is important to remember that the agreement limits the deployment of all land-based intermediate-range missiles, whether deployed with a conventional or nuclear warhead. This has put both Russia and the United States at a serious disadvantage when it comes to China and its large and growing supply of intermediate-range missiles. Citing that threat, in 2007 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed terminating the INF treaty; the United States refused. There is still reason to believe the Russians are sufficiently concerned over the limitations of the INF deal that they have sought to circumvent or even break it. Specifically, there have been allegations in Western media that the Russians have tested the RS-26 ballistic missile to intermediate ranges. More alarming reports say Russia is developing a ground-launched cruise missile in clear violation of the INF treaty.

As far as the United States is concerned, the limitations of the INF treaty are problematic but necessary to avoid an arms race with Russia in an era of budget cuts. In the Western Pacific, China relies extensively on its arsenal of land-based intermediate-range missiles as part of the country's counter-intervention strategy. With its anti-ship ballistic missiles or cruise and ballistic missiles, China can sink enemy ships, strike bases and crater runways in its immediate vicinity. Since Japan has no land-based cruise or ballistic missiles and the INF agreement restricts the U.S. arsenal, the United States relies disproportionately on air- and sea-launched missiles, with all their associated limitations.

For Russia, despite its numerous concerns, withdrawing from the INF treaty, or especially New START, would probably trigger another arms race with the United States that Moscow may not be able to afford. It is doubtful whether Russia, which already has a substantial military modernization program underway, has the resources needed to build a sizable arsenal of intermediate-range missiles while also expanding its strategic nuclear triad. Such an effort would at least disrupt Russia's other military priorities.

An even greater concern for Russia — one that is voiced quite often — is that the arms control treaties limit Russia's offensive capability at a time when the United States is developing its anti-ballistic missile shield in Europe. Considering the sheer number of delivery systems still allowed by New START and the technological immaturity of anti-ballistic missile systems, Moscow's fear is largely groundless for now. Considering the possibilities of rapid investment and technological progress down the line, however, it is easy to understand Russia's long-term worries. The Russians cannot keep pace with the Americans in terms of funding missile defense technology.

Weighing the Costs

Although the Russians are displeased with New START and especially the INF treaty, they know the consequences of withdrawing from the treaties could make matters worse. Moscow is already investing heavily in modernizing its strategic nuclear strike force through new and improved land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear ballistic missile-equipped submarines. The Russians also recognize that they are at a conventional disadvantage against NATO and China. The modernization of the strategic nuclear force, in conjunction with a fairly aggressive nuclear doctrine, allows Moscow to ensure continued deterrence against potential threats.

Moreover, the trust accumulated over decades of arms control agreements would be severely damaged if Russia were to unilaterally withdraw from the treaties. The Russians, like the Americans, do not want to return to a world of high tension and risk of nuclear war.

Still, the Russians have considerable incentives to raise the possibility of withdrawal from the treaties as leverage in negotiations with the United States, particularly as they attempt to drive Washington toward talks on the neutralization of states in the Russian periphery such as Ukraine and Georgia. At the same time, however, Moscow will be careful not to take its threats too far. Indeed, shortly after the initial threat of withdrawal from New START, Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said that all inspection missions in Russia will proceed as normal.

In fact, by September 2011, Russia was already in full compliance with the warhead and delivery vehicle limitations of New START while the United States was not. (Obligations must be met by February 2018.) The INF deal is on shakier ground than New START, but the same consequences of withdrawing would apply. While Moscow could one day withdraw from the treaties, it would do so only if it felt its national security was threatened by the agreements, not as a means of retaliation.

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