U.S., Russia: A Nuclear Treaty Shows Weaknesses

4 MINS READDec 18, 2014 | 10:15 GMT
A Russian SS-27 Mod 2 thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile launcher sits at a base in Teykovo in 2011.
A Russian SS-27 Mod 2 thermonuclear intercontinental ballistic missile launcher sits at a base in Teykovo in 2011.

The United States may deploy nuclear cruise missiles to Eastern Europe, according to recent statements made by U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon. The move runs counter to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which the United States and Russia signed in 1987. McKeon's statement highlights the continued deterioration of the INF treaty at a time when both sides increasingly see it as a limitation, further indicating deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington.

The United States has long suspected Russia of violating the INF treaty prohibiting the deployment of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges, defined as 500-5,500 kilometers (310-3,410 miles). Of particular concern has been Russia's development of the R-500 ground-based cruise missile, as well as the testing of the SS-27 Mod 2 intercontinental ballistic missile at ranges prohibited by the INF treaty. Over the past few years, the United States has launched inquiries into these alleged breaches and has indicated that it views them as serious violations of the INF treaty.

At the same time, Russia also believes the United States has violated the treaty. Specifically, it points to the development of armed unmanned aerial vehicles that it claims could be used as cruise missiles. Furthermore, the Russians point towards the U.S. ballistic missile defense plans in Europe that envisage the deployment of ground based Mk41 Vertical Missile Launch Systems that could be modified to house cruise missiles because of their modular nature. While the Russian claims are not as strong as the American accusations, they do highlight that both countries have concerns over the interpretation of the treaty and suspect each other of failing to adhere to it.

The effects of the INF treaty's potential demise are not limited to Russia and the United States. Because China is not a party to the treaty, it has greatly benefitted from the limits placed on the U.S. and Russian militaries. To defend against a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait, for instance, China has deployed approximately 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The United States, on the other hand, can only rely on cruise missiles delivered by aircraft or naval vessels. Withdrawing from the INF treaty would allow the United States to overcome these limits by deploying shore-based cruise and ballistic missiles that could potentially use shore-based Mk41 launchers in Okinawa. Withdrawing from the treaty would also allow the U.S. Army to have a greater role in the Air-Sea Battle concept currently dominated by the Air Force and Navy, further threatening China.

Despite progressively close and cordial ties with Beijing, Moscow has become increasingly worried over the past few decades as China has pulled ahead in conventional fighting power. To right this imbalance, Russia has bolstered its tactical nuclear doctrine to compensate for its conventional weakness, declaring in 2000 that it could use nuclear weapons when facing a large-scale conventional threat. The demise of the INF would enable the Russians to deploy intermediate nuclear range missiles against China that would enhance their retaliatory options.

The coming year could see further erosion and a possible dissolution of the INF treaty. The United States' ballistic missile defense plans in Europe are set to progress in 2015, and provocative flights by Russian aircraft and differences over the conflict in Ukraine only add to the tension between Washington and Moscow. If European states accept a U.S. deployment of nuclear cruise missiles, the move would only inflame tensions with Russia further. In response to the potential move, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has floated the possibility of deploying Russian nuclear weapons in Crimea. Indeed, such a development would for all intents and purposes kill the INF treaty.

It is clear that the INF treaty has imposed considerable limits on both Russian and U.S. missile capabilities. These limits and the associated confidence-building measures, however, have been pivotal in paving the way for other key arms control agreements. The INF treaty remains a foundational agreement that has enhanced the rapport between the United States and the Soviet Union — and now Russia — over the past three decades. Its demise, while giving both parties more military options in a changing world, will do much to undermine previously built up confidence. The fact that Washington and Moscow are circumventing the treaty and even thinking of leaving it entirely is yet another trend that marks the increasing deterioration of relations between the United States and Russia. 

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