Michael KreponResponding to Treaty Violations

Gray-haired readers of ACW will remember when the acronym RSVP was treaty-related. During the first term of the Reagan administration, arms-control opponents compiled a long list of the Kremlin’s treaty violations and circumventions, real or imagined. They then commissioned studies on how to respond. RSVP became shorthand for Responding to Soviet Violations Policy.

The question arises once again after the Obama administration’s finding that the Kremlin has violated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. There has been no shortage of suggestions how to respond.

Let’s start with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page:

One apt response would be to withdraw from New Start. Russia was already below the limits in this treaty on strategic nuclear weapons and launchers, obliging only the U.S. to reduce its stockpiles. The White House should also restore the ground-based missile-defense interceptors that it abandoned in 2009 in a misguided attempt to appease the Kremlin.

The Reagan administration didn’t take this advice. Rather than junking the unratified SALT II Treaty, it abided by Treaty limits until in a position to breach them.

Friend of ACW and year-end contest judge Tom Nichols, writing in the National Interest, has a different idea:

The West should emphasize what the Russians fear most: NATO’s considerable conventional edge. Washington should accelerate the halting steps we’ve taken since the invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea, and work with our NATO partners to build up stronger conventional forces in Europe. If the Russians are keeping nuclear arms as insurance against losing a conventional war, it’s only because they still think they have some kind of a shot a conventional fight in the first place. We can close that loophole, and must, soon.

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment — in the same publication — would tighten this aperture significantly:

The United States is currently developing a new cruise-missile detection system known as JLENS, which consists of tethered airships carrying radars. Although it may sound oddly old-fashioned, it’s a clever idea because airships can be based at a high altitude for prolonged periods and can monitor large areas on a full-time basis. Plans to test this system in Maryland are currently in jeopardy because the House of Representatives is seeking to reduce its funding significantly. This presents the Obama administration with an opportunity. Washington should now announce revamped plans to conduct the JLENS test in the territory of an Eastern European ally if Russia does not take corrective actions in, say, six months.

Steven Pifer of Brookings has called for diplomatic initiatives as well as the following:

The Pentagon could consider devoting a small budget to a feasibility study on possible new U.S. intermediate-range missiles. Given budget pressures and the current lack of a defined priority military requirement, there would be little sense in proceeding to develop or acquire such missiles. However, the prospect of a future Pershing III or advanced ground-launched cruise missile might get Russia’s attention and remind Moscow of the value of the INF Treaty.

Last but certainly not least, ACW Founding Father Jeffrey Lewis, in this instance at Foreign Policy, has offered the following:

This is a political challenge that requires a political response. NATO must assure its new members that Russia’s nuclear forces will not deter Western Europe from meeting its security commitments to the former Warsaw Pact states now sheltering under the North Atlantic Alliance… If this is a political problem more than a military one, NATO must ensure its response will strengthen the political cohesion of the alliance, not break it apart.

Here are my suggestions, for what they’re worth: First, the Senate could usefully underline its concerns over Russian noncompliance by confirming Frank Rose to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance. He was nominated for this post by President Obama more than a year ago. By refusing to act on his nomination, Senate Republicans leave themselves in the awkward position of arguing that Russian noncompliance matters greatly, but not so much as to help the administration prosecute this case.

Second, exiting the Treaty doesn’t make sense, for reasons that many have already stated. If Putin wants to go first, let him burn a few more bridges to Europe. We have no good reason to precede him. Nor do I think it’s wise to respond in kind to Russian violations. New land-based, intermediate-range, ground-launched missile programs will be costly to build, take time to deploy, and offer Moscow wedge-splitting opportunities with respect to forward basing. Why go there?

In my view, narrow technical rejoinders won’t get the job done, either. As Jeffrey has argued, Russia’s INF violation poses a political challenge, not a technical or military one. If the flight-testing of an INF-prohibited system — and subsequent deployments – is about leveraging Russia’s neighbors and NATO partners, the most useful U.S. counters would reassure those under pressure. U.S. nuclear-related responses will not be reassuring. Other options will have more military and political utility.

Therefore, I suggest the following guidelines for suitable rejoinders, in addition to diplomatic efforts to reinforce INF Treaty provisions:

  1. Steps that reaffirm U.S. commitments to friends and allies.
  2. Steps that do not further undermine the objects and purposes of a treaty Washington would like Moscow to stop disrespecting.
  3. Steps that would not be very hard politically, financially, and technically to implement.
  4. Steps that Washington could make a point of implementing right away.
  5. Steps that could be adjusted, upwards and downwards, depending on Putin’s subsequent moves. If he decides to continue to undermine the INF Treaty’s objects and purposes by flight-testing and then deploying INF-prohibited weapon systems, the United States could continue to ramp up rejoinders. If he shifts course in a positive direction, Washington could dial back.

And what might these rejoinders be? Ramping up steps that the Obama administration has already begun, including port visits by U.S. Naval vessels, some equipped with sea-launched cruise missiles; visits by U.S. Air Force planes, including those equipped with air-launched cruise missiles; increasing the tempo and size of combined military exercises; increasing the scope, size and tempo of U.S. training missions; cooperating with friends and allies on Open Skies cooperative aerial monitoring flights; and accelerating plans for forward-based missile defenses. Existing plans could be expanded if Putin continues on his present course.


  1. Pavel (History)

    I wish a small fraction of all the energy going into the discussion of a U.S. response went into finding out what the violation is all about.

    • krepon (History)

      Plz help us out.

    • Pavel (History)
    • krepon (History)

      Thanks for this analysis.
      It’s possible, as you suggest, that the Obama administration is over-reacting to scant evidence. It may be making a mountain out of a molehill, to use an aphorism I grew up with. This would be the time to do so, given the situation in Eastern Ukraine and pressures from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
      We will know more in due course. On the other hand, these concerns predate the Ukraine mess and the Obama administration does not have a record of over-reaction.
      Best wishes,

  2. J_kies (History)

    Its not always about us; I doubt Russian military calculus worries about the west in this instance. I suggest the real problem with the INF is the huge, maturing and aggressive Chinese MRBM/IRBM arsenal including both nuclear and nuclear capable (payload size, not necessarily integrated with nuclear payloads).

    Perhaps we come to an accommodation that we permit waivers as long as the weapons are unequivocally targeting China with a promise that if China joins the INF then the weapons will be destroyed in accordance with the INF.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I suspect there is at least a secondary anti-Western component to these systems, at least as one more wedge to split a presently fairly weak set of alliances. But even if there’s absolutely nothing to that, you’re right that China alone is sufficient reason for the Russians to want to redeploy intermediate-range weapons.

      More generally, we have succeeded in reducing the US/USSR deployed forces to the point where future strategic arms limits cannot be purely bilateral. Britain and France may not be a problem in this regard, but China definitely is. Partly because of their general lack of transparency in that regard, and partly because their force structure is based heavily (and for sound reasons) on a class of weapon that everyone else has agreed to ban.

      I suspect the odds of ever getting China to join the INF treaty are extremely low. And absent that, a long-term solution of letting the Russians deploy mobile intermediate-range missiles so long as the promise to only ever use them against the Chinese, doesn’t seem right either.

      Agree with Michael and Jeffrey that we needn’t and shouldn’t abandon the treaty ourselves, but I don’t have any other solutions.

  3. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Michael. Makes a lot of sense. And why we need gray heads. I suspect that many of those editorial-writers weren’t around to see the Cold War and learned the subtlties of diplomacy from the Bush administraton.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)
  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    China “dongfeng 41” ICBM article link.


  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    You wouldn’t expect the Navy to test its weapons in the desert. But that’s just what happened Thursday at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, an Army facility 500 miles from the sea, where a Standard Missile-6 successfully intercepted a mock cruise missile flying low and slow over land. Hitting that target is one sign of how far Navy missile defense programs have cast their net beyond their traditional domain.

    The Navy’s Standard Missile is, as the bland name says, the Navy’s standard missile to defend the fleet against incoming strikes by enemy aircraft and anti-ship missiles. (Attacking enemy ships and ground targets is done by other missiles altogether). In recent years, though, the Raytheon-made missile has branched out. The standard Standard, the SM-2, is a straightforward fleet-defense weapon, with some capability to intercept targets over the land and even hit enemy ships. But the military is developing a long-range, high-altitude SM-3 variant to intercept ballistic missiles as they coast through spac

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    The U.S. Labor Department ordered the reinstatement of an environmental specialist at the former nuclear weapons complex at Hanford, Wash., saying she had been wrongfully fired.

    Shelly Doss, an employee of Washington River Protection Solutions, was fired in October 2011 after she had reported federal and state environmental violations at a cleanup site at Hanford.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb, could ramp up production of triggers for nuclear weapons to levels not seen since the Cold War, if federal defense and energy officials get their way.

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