Michael KreponKrasnoyarsk: The Antecedent to the INF Treaty Violation?

Quip of the week:

“Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”  — line by Chico Marx in “Duck Soup”

Two former Soviet experts who played key roles in Cold War arms control negotiations, Aleksandr’ G. Savel’yev and Nikolay N. Detinov, wrote an important book giving outsiders insight into the Kremlin’s decision making. The English language version of their book, The Big Five, was published in 1995. Their account of decision making regarding the construction of the Krasnoyask radar is telling and could provide clues into Moscow’s subsequent decision to deploy new ground-launched cruise missiles with range capabilities prohibited by the INF Treaty. This maneuver led to the INF Treaty’s demise.

Russian officials maintain that (a) the missiles in question do not have range capabilities prohibited by the Treaty, despite apparent flight testing to the contrary; and (b) this was a “technical” rather than a substantive matter. The Obama administration didn’t buy these arguments. Neither did the Trump administration, which announced its intention to withdraw from the Treaty in February, after which Moscow followed suit.

Here’s some background on the Krasnoyarsk radar:

The ABM Treaty permitted both countries to construct a ring of radars designed for early warning of ballistic missile attack on national peripheries oriented outward. This, along with their operational frequencies and their design, were important ways to distinguish early warning radars from battle management radars that would be employed to direct intercepts against incoming warheads.

Whatever their intended purpose or location, these large installations could be quickly destroyed in wartime. (Battle management radars for sure; early warning radars could be left intact to assess limited rather than massive attacks.) Nevertheless, the ABM Treaty’s distinctions were designed to relieve worst-case assumptions. By codifying the placement of early warning radars on the periphery and strictly limiting battle management radars in the interior, the superpowers were demonstrating to each other that they accepted national vulnerability – a necessary condition for eventual deep cuts in strategic offenses.

The Kremlin, however, faced a dilemma. Building an early warning radar on its periphery oriented outward to cover attack corridors to the northeast would be extremely difficult. Weather conditions for construction at a treaty-permitted site, like Noril’sk, would be brutal and besides, there was no infrastructure to support construction there. A site inland, near Krasnoyarsk was far preferable, and a cover story – that the radar was for space tracking, not early warning – was not entirely false and could be used as a public rationale. As Savel’yev and Detinov wrote, after much internal debate and study,

“The balance was tipped decisively by [Minister of Defense] Dmitri Ustinov and the General Staff… The economic rationale proved the determining factor in making this choice. No one, of course, could have imagined at the time that the Krasnoyarsk option would later lead to such serious political complications.”

“The serious political complications” came soon enough, as the Krasnoyarsk radar became the unarguable centerpiece of the Reagan administration’s long list of Soviet arms control treaty violations. Hardliners were up in arms, viewing Kransnoyarsk as evidence of the Kremlin’s pursuit of nuclear war fighting capabilities. Powerful supporters of arms control weighed in, dismissing the Kremlin’s cover story. Paul Warnke testified on Capitol Hill on at least two occasions that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a treaty violation. McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan, Robert McNamara and Gerard Smith called out the Kremlin in print.

For all practical purposes, rectifying the violation meant tearing the radar down. Once Gorbachev, who wanted and needed a treaty reducing strategic forces, reconciled himself to this remedy, an important obstacle to a treaty signing ceremony was removed. Gorbachev initially proposed that the radar be operated by international staff to clarify that it was not a battle management radar. Then, at a meeting with Secretary of State James Baker at Jackson Hole in September 1989, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze spilled the beans and threw in the towel. He told Baker that the Kasnoyarsk facility  was an early warning radar built for convenience and cost-savings, and that it would be dismantled.

How does this story relate to Russian ground-launched cruise missiles deployed in violation of the INF Treaty? My assessment is speculative, but here goes:

The Soviet General Staff was deeply unhappy with the INF Treaty and with Gorbachev’s negotiating style. For particulars in the English language, see The Big Five and Anatoly Dobrynin’s memoirs, In Confidence.  Dobrynin writes,

“Gorbachev increasingly improvised and without consulting our experts would agree to sudden compromises which were often regarded by our military as one-sided concessions to the Americans.”

Giving up INF-range missiles in Asia added salt to the wounds. Again, here’s Dobrynin:

“In Asia the SS-20s were part of our strategic defenses against China as well as the American bases in Japan and the Indian Ocean, so this certainly represented a major concession.”

The Russian General Staff felt the same way as the Soviet General Staff. My guess is that they wanted to retrieve Gorbachev’s “concessions,” and Vladimir Putin agreed. The cover story that the new missiles had insufficient range to violate the INF Treaty and that this was a negotiable “technical” problem, fell as flat as the Krasnoyarsk radar cover story.

Since Donald Trump was easily persuaded to initiate withdrawal from the Treaty, blame could be spread around. And the Russian General Staff and the Pentagon could pursue military capabilities that Gorbachev and Reagan took away from them.

That’s my analysis, and I’m sticking to it until new information arises to change my mind.


  1. Jonah Speaks (History)

    On the Krasnoyarsk radar, sounds like one part of the Soviet bureaucracy first signed the treaty, and only later on a second part of the bureaucracy determined that they could not afford to implement its provisions.

    It reminds me of a 1995 incident where the Norwegians notified Russia they were planning to launch a weather satellite. Unfortunately, the message never made it to Russian nuclear command and control, which misinterpreted the launch as the possible start of a pre-emptive nuclear attack (after the Cold War was over!). Fortunately, the rocket’s path eventually veered away enough, that all could construe it as false alarm.

  2. E. Rhym (History)

    Thank you, Mr. Krepon, for placing blame for the demise of the INF Treaty squarely where it belongs — on the Russian Federation. Finally!

    This reminds me of President Obama’s 2009 “Prague Speech” when he declared, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

    While I would have preferred for Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance with the INF Treaty, I am grateful the United States demonstrated the political resolve to withdraw from the Treaty after a decade of allowing Russia to violate the agreement with impunity. . . and allowing Europe (Germany, in particular) to stick their proverbial head in the sand to avoid seeing the threat such Russian action embodied to Western Civilization.

    The United States sought and received unanimous NATO endorsement for its decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty. It is far better that our country and our allies deal with the reality of threats, so they can be assessed and mitigated prudently, than persist in a make believe world of denial, clinging to empty promises that stifle remedial action.

  3. Yeah, Right (History)

    Sorry, maybe I’m just dumb, but I understand the argument to be this:
    The ABM Treaty aimed to strictly limit the use of “battle management radars”, and to help distinguish those from “early warning radars” the treaty insisted that the latter had to be built at the national periphery.

    Only… the periphery of Russia is f**king cold, so the USSR built some early warning radars in Krasnoyarsk because, you know, it isn’t quite so f**king cold there. But early warning radars they were, they were not “battle management radars”.

    That’s the gist of it, isn’t it?

    Perhaps I am being dense, but isn’t that the definition of a “technical violation”?

    Had the Krasnoyarsk radars been “battle management radars” then that would be a “material breach” of the treaty. But they weren’t. They were “early warning radars” albeit sited for convenience because, you know, f**king cold.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      As I recall, the placement of an early warning radar in the wrong place for convenience sake wasn’t viewed as a “technical” matter — not even by most of the arms control community. To accept such a blatant violation of the clear treaty text on any grounds would have invited other steps for “convenience sake” — a slippery slope no one who cared about the treaty in the US wanted.

      Ditto for the INF Treaty violation.

      Compare to, say, the Open Skies Treaty “violations,” which are chicken feed.

    • Yeah, Right (History)

      Thank you for your reply, but I’d like to point out that the phrases “technical violation” and “material breach” are terms that have meaning within treaty law, whereas “technical matter” and “chicken feed” do not.

      A treaty sets out to achieve certain objectives..

      If the violation of the text of that treaty does not in any material way defeat the objective of that treaty then there has been a “technical violation”, and the proper remedy is to sit down and talk through the issue to see how it can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

      Say…. by proposing “the radar be operated by international staff to clarify that it was not a battle management radar”. Or, if the aggrieved party insists, then the radar needs to be dismantled. Whatever.

      But either way (accept the proposal for int’l staffing, or insist that the radar be dismantled) the entire affair is no big deal. After all, it’s not like this was a battle management radar, and so the USSR did not gain any strategic advantage.

      But if the violation is such that it defeats the objective of that treaty then there has been a “material breach”, and that is an altogether more serious accusation and the other party – quite rightly – should raise merry Hell up to and including threatening to abandon the treaty.

      I do see that building something that is *claimed* to be an early warning radar but is *actually* a battle management radar is a material breach of the ABM Treaty. The very objective of the treaty is defeated. The USSR gained an undeserved advantage over the USA.

      I do not see that moving an early warning radar because northern Russia too inhospitable is a material breach of the treaty. It is a technical violation.

      “Ditto for the INF Treaty violation.”

      I’m actually quite curious about the comparison you make between the Krasnoyarsk radar/ABM Treaty and Russian cruise missiles/INF Treaty.

      To my mind a far more appropriate parallel is the use by the USA of MK41 VLS in the Aegis Ashore installations in eastern Europe.

      The Russians insisted that the use of the Mk41 VLS was a material breach of Article IV(1) of the INF Treaty as those launchers could launch cruise missiles (note that the Treaty banned not just Tomahawk cruise missiles, it also banned their “launchers”).

      The USA insisted that this was a technical violation, as the USA only intended to put Standard missiles in those launchers (even though the MK41 could launch Tomahawks).

      And cementing the analogy even further is the fact that the Americans stated that if the Russians were going to run around with their hair on fire over this then they are agreeable to those silos being inspected to confirm that there were no Tomahawks in them (as one notable said: “As a practical matter, the U.S. should—and in fact has—offered to let the Russians take a look and reassure themselves”)

      Was the MK41 launcher a “material breach” of Article IV(1)?
      Or were they merely a “technical violation” of Article IV(1)?

      In the eye of the beholder. As was Krasnoyarsk.

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