Quote of the Week:
“I don’t think even the surreptitious and very disagreeable deployment of a hundred SS-20s would have a very significant military effect. I think the SS-20s, in my judgment, in fact, is not a terribly useful military weapon. I think it would have far-reaching political effects… But almost any kind of violation of the INF agreement that I can think of is not likely to be very militarily significant.”
– Testimony of Zbigniew Brzezinski before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the INF Treaty, February 16, 1988.
Michael Gordon, back on the Pentagon beat for the New York Times, has reported that Russia has begun to deploy a nuclear-capable, ground-launched cruise missile, contrary to its obligations under the pivotal 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. This treaty prohibits development, flight-testing, production, and deployment of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The INF Treaty became possible when the Soviet Union’s deployment of SS-20 ballistic missiles, each carrying three warheads, was countered by the deployment in Europe of U.S. ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles. Only then was the Kremlin ready to make a deal eliminating all of them. Deep cuts in strategic forces followed. Vladimir Putin has since groused about the ban on these missiles because other states, like China, India and Pakistan, have remained free to deploy them.
The Obama Administration concluded in annual reports on “Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments” that Russia had taken all steps short of deployment of this prohibited missile, designated as the SSC-X-8. Now that the “X” has been removed from this designation, signaling operational deployment, what is the most effective way for the United States to respond? In attempting to answer this question, let’s consider others, first.
Is this a material breach of the INF Treaty or merely a “technical” matter? My mentor on international law and treaty law, David Koplow of Georgetown University, advises me that a material breach is defined in paragraph 3b in Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties as a “violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object and purpose of the treaty.” By this definition, the SSC-8 deployment qualifies as a material breach, just as the construction of the Krasnoyarsk radar in the late 1970s qualified as a material breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. (The Treaty permitted large phased-array radars on national peripheries to help with early warning, but strictly limited their number and location in the interior– at places like Krasnoyarsk – where they could presumably be useful for battle management.)
If the appearance of the SSC-8 constitutes a material breach, does it warrant U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty? Withdrawal at this point would serve no practical purpose. President Ronald Reagan didn’t withdraw from the ABM Treaty because of the Krasnoyarsk radar’s construction, opting instead to keep hammering away at the Kremlin to address the violation. Construction was halted in 1987, and two years later, the Kremlin acknowledged this radar was a violation and began to take remedial action.
The Reagan Administration remained in compliance with the ABM Treaty because it was not in a position to deploy prohibited national missile defenses and did not have the support to do so. U.S. allies would have been deeply troubled had Washington reacted to this material breach by withdrawing from the treaty and, besides, this breach didn’t affect the viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. All of these factors apply to the SSC-8 violation. The Trump Administration would be harming the United States and NATO more than the Kremlin by withdrawing from the INF Treaty.
Is the deployment of the SSC-8 militarily significant? No. The SSC-8 is a minor accessory to the nuclear wardrobe of the Russian Federation. The United States possesses more than enough nuclear firepower to make the rubble bounce in Russia in the event of a nuclear war. The rationale behind the SSC-8’s deployment does not seem to be linked to war-fighting requirements. Instead, Moscow appears intent to soften up NATO, demonstrate opposition to U.S. forward-deployed missile defenses, and drive a wedge between the United States and its friends and allies in Europe. The best rejoinders are those that shore up these ties while demanding the removal and destruction of existing SSC-8s, as well as the re-imposition of the INF Treaty’s monitoring provisions at production facilities where these missiles have been built.
Are military steps a part of the rejoinder? Yes. Smart steps will help reaffirm alliance ties. Dumb steps will strain them even more. The Obama Administration anticipated the deployment of the SCC-8 and has already taken several actions, including rotating troops into vulnerable states and stepping up joint training exercises under the European Reassurance Initiative.
What about introducing more tactical nuclear weapons to deter Russia? This would be a 1950’s and 1960’s response to a 21st century problem. Tactical nuclear weapons pose the most severe challenges to nuclear safety and security. To convey military resolve, they have to be positioned very close to the forward edge of battle, where they would be most susceptible to black-swan events. Attempts to increase existing tactical nuclear weapon stockpiles in Europe would widen fissures between the United States and NATO. And besides, on-rushing tank armies across the Fulda Gap are not the threat that needs to be countered.
How about reintroducing ground-launched, nuclear-armed ballistic and cruise missiles onto NATO soil? This would be a 1970’s and 1980’s response to a 21st century problem. Upping the ante with weapons of last, rather than first, resort isn’t a smart move. Trying to negotiate new basing rights would be profoundly disruptive, and it would take years to get back in the business of producing and deploying INF Treaty-prohibited systems.
How about adding more theater missile defense systems in Europe? This would certainly get Moscow’s attention, and the Kremlin would likely threaten more Euro-missile deployments in return. The U.S. threat would be less real than the Russian threat, because defending against cruise missiles is even harder that defending against ballistic missiles – and performance against the latter remains questionable even after the expenditure of 300 billion dollars. Nonetheless, there is a long history of the Kremlin’s hyper-sensitivity to U.S. missile defense deployments, so increased funding for cruise missile defense would add meaning to complaints about the SSC-8. Their actual deployment, however, would be likely to have the opposite result.
The primary reason why is that Vladimir Putin is not Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev responded to the U.S. counter-move of Euro-missile deployments by accepting the “zero option.” Putin is likely to react to new deployments of Euro-missile defenses by adding far more SSC-8s. The leverage that can be gained by increased funding of cruise missile defenses can be lost by their deployment.
So what is to be done? The smartest moves are to double down on the European Reassurance Initiative and to open up a diplomatic track alongside the military preparedness track – which is how the INF Treaty came about. The smart, 21st-century counters to Putin’s retro-nuclear posturing involve precision-guided, stealthy, standoff conventional weapons. The United States holds these high cards, and, if the Kremlin continues to deploy Euro-missiles, America can share more of them – including extended-range, air-launched cruise missiles that are not covered by the INF Treaty – with its NATO allies. This prospect, along with the prospect of more theater missile defense deployments in Europe, might persuade Vladimir Putin to return to compliance with the INF Treaty.
Note to readers: A shorter version of this post appeared in Defense One on March 3rd.