Jeffrey LewisRussia and the INF Treaty

Over the weekend, Foreign Policy posted a column of mine on Russia’s compliance, or lack thereof, with the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).  The short version is that, while the the treaty is loosely worded, the Russians appear to be deploying two systems that are inconsistent with its viability — what I like to call the RS-26 “intermediate-range ICBM” and the R-500 cruise missile..  These systems pose  a political problem, since they appear design to deter Western European states from meeting their NATO obligations to new NATO members like Poland and the Baltics.  Since the challenge is a political one to the cohesion of NATO, my recommendations are largely political in nature.  We don’t need new intermediate range nuclear forces, which would probably divide the alliance.  But we should make Russian noncompliance a public issue, in both the next State Department Compliance Report and in a public speech by the Secretary of Defense. I would also propose a study of conventionally-armed intermediate range forces, an amendment of a suggestion by Bridge Colby, to remind Moscow why it agreed to the INF Treaty in the first place.  I wouldn’t deploy such systems, of course, if we could resolve the issues relating to the RS-26 and R-500.

There are always little odds and ends that I can’t work into the piece, but this week there are more than usual.

Also, the comments at Foreign Policy can be a little … well … um … I have the greatest readers in the world here at ACW!

1. I have a pretty grim view of the situation in Moscow.  The short version is that I take Putin at his word when says the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.  I take that to mean that he believes Gorbachev should have used force to prevent the loss of the Warsaw Pact and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. If I am right about that, this view explains why he is willing to murder dissidents, journalists and bankers, send the riots police into club protestors and now dismember neighboring states.  This isn’t a bad time to re-read either Kennan’s long telegram, or his “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs.  Here’s a pretty fair sample:

Now it lies in the nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders, as well as in the character of their ideology, that no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever. Such opposition can flow, in theory, only from the hostile and incorrigible forces of dying capitalism. As long as remnants of capitalism were officially recognized as existing in Russia, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the maintenance of a dictatorial form of society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the Soviet regime: since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.

This began at an early date. In 1924 Stalin specifically defended the retention of the “organs of suppression,” meaning, among others, the army and the secret police, on the ground that “as long as there is a capitalistic encirclement there will be danger of intervention with all the consequences that flow from that danger.” In accordance with that theory, and from that time on, all internal opposition forces in Russia have consistently been portrayed as the agents of foreign forces of reaction antagonistic to Soviet power.

By the same token, tremendous emphasis has been placed on the original Communist thesis of a basic antagonism between the capitalist and Socialist worlds. It is clear, from many indications, that this emphasis is not founded in reality. The real facts concerning it have been confused by the existence abroad of genuine resentment provoked by Soviet philosophy and tactics and occasionally by the existence of great centers of military power, notably the Nazi regime in Germany and the Japanese Government of the late 1930s, which indeed have aggressive designs against the Soviet Union. But there is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

Now the maintenance of this pattern of Soviet power, namely, the pursuit of unlimited authority domestically, accompanied by the cultivation of the semi-myth of implacable foreign hostility, has gone far to shape the actual machinery of Soviet power as we know it today. Internal organs of administration which did not serve this purpose withered on the vine. Organs which did serve this purpose became vastly swollen. The security of Soviet power came to rest on the iron discipline of the Party, on the severity and ubiquity of the secret police, and on the uncompromising economic monopolism of the state. The “organs of suppression,” in which the Soviet leaders had sought security from rival forces, became in large measures the masters of those whom they were designed to serve. Today the major part of the structure of Soviet power is committed to the perfection of the dictatorship and to the maintenance of the concept of Russia as in a state of siege, with the enemy lowering beyond the walls. And the millions of human beings who form that part of the structure of power must defend at all costs this concept of Russia’s position, for without it they are themselves superfluous.

As things stand today, the rulers can no longer dream of parting with these organs of suppression. The quest for absolute power, pursued now for nearly three decades with a ruthlessness unparalleled (in scope at least) in modern times, has again produced internally, as it did externally, its own reaction. The excesses of the police apparatus have fanned the potential opposition to the regime into something far greater and more dangerous than it could have been before those excesses began.

But least of all can the rulers dispense with the fiction by which the maintenance of dictatorial power has been defended. For this fiction has been canonized in Soviet philosophy by the excesses already committed in its name; and it is now anchored in the Soviet structure of thought by bonds far greater than those of mere ideology.

That’s Putin’s mental world — one he inherited as a loyal KGB man and the reason he laments the loss of the Soviet Union. He really thinks we’re out to get him and there is no reassuring him.

2. In my piece, I speculate that the RS-26 is a two-stage SS-27 Mod 2.   Others have suggested that the RS-26 may be a land-based Bulava. I lean against that hypothesis few  reasons.  First, a Russian official has said it was developed on the basis of the RS-24.  That is a vague comment, but it is hard not to interpret in light of the fact that the SS-20 was simply a two-stage SS-16.  The RS-26 appears to be a two-stage missile that just barely makes ICBM-range depending on the payload; the Bulava is a three-stage ICBM with an 8,000 km range.  Moreover, Bulava has had a number of developmental problems.  It is possible that the RS-26 is a two-stage Bulava, but the simplest answer is still a two-stage SS-27.  All the more reason for State to raise the issue in the compliance report.

3.  Some of the problem arising from the range of the R-500 cruise missile, which may be as much as  2,000 km, is really a problem of Kaliningrad.  The geography of Eastern and Central Europe is such that there isn’t really much Russia can do with a 2,000 km-range cruise missile that it can’t do better with a 500 km range cruise missile — unless you put the R-500s in Kaliningrad.  That suggests that Kaliningrad’s status as isolated Russian encalve amidst NATO nations is probably an important challenge for NATO and Russia to work out.  But those are long, complicated questions to which I don’t have any answers.

4. Also, the Iskander is probably conventionally armed, which raises the question of  whether we should care if  Russia cheats on the INF treaty — the N is for nuclear — with conventional missiles.  The treaty text makes no distinction among nuclear or conventional missiles — its formal title is The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles —  but let’s not kid ourselves.  If the SS-20 delivered GOЯBY dolls, it would have been a short walk in the woods for Paul Nitze.

5.  Finally, a colleague noted something about the name of the RS-26 Rubezh. Rubezh is usually translated as Frontier. Since the SS-20 was, in Russian, the Pioneer, I figured it was a cowboy thing.  Nope.  It’s more like “border” or “demarcation” as in “this missile is right on the border between INF and New START” or “Ric James is a habitual line stepper“.  The Russian MoD is trolling NATO.

6. The first draft contained an extended discussion of the debate over INF within the Reagan Administration between Richard Burt and Richard Perle — the “two Richards.” (Although I am certain no one called them the two Richards.)  That discussion draws on two excellent books by Strobe Talbott about arms control during the period, Deadly Gambits and Master of the Game. (My younger colleagues might not realize what a great journalist Talbott was before becoming a principal in his own right.) The important point is that the Reagan Administration pursued a “zero option” of banning all intermediate-range nuclear forces in a treaty with the Soviets largely because Richard Perle thought zero was a poison pill that the Russians would never swallow.  But Gorbachev, who was plenty worried about the Pershing-2 and sensible in general, ultimately agreed to Perl’s surprise.  Richard Perle, far from being happy, resigned in March 1987, telling a colleague “It’s getting to be springtime for arms control around here.”  I love that story.

7.  Finally, my colleague Nikolai Sokov has a different view that he has outlined here and elsewhere.  I enjoy roping Nikolai into these discussions and couldn’t figure out how to link to his pieces.  I managed to include a lot of links to Pavel Podvig’s excellent site, but I can’t say enough nice things about his work.


  1. tobias piechowiak (History)

    Hey Jeffrey,

    very interesting piece.
    Could you provide a figure caption? Is this in Kaliningrad and what do suppose the truck contains?

    • N. Sokov (History)

      This is a TEL that was displayed in Minsk; more information can be found on Pavel Podvig’s site. Belarus prodices TELs for both existing Russian ICBMs and, in the past, SS-20s. The important thing is its size – Topol (SS-25) TELs have 7 wheels, Topol-M (SS-27) – 8.

    • JO (History)

      The TEL looks similar to the new 6 axle one for the improved DF-21. Some sources are quoting 36 tonnes for the weight of the missile but suspect its closer to 15 tonnes like the DF-21D.

      Glide phase of the DF-21D extends range from ~1700 to ~2500 km, DF-21 warhead is 600kg. With a smaller warhead and super-efficient booster they may be able to get past 5000km. Or a better glide vehicle. But anyway my guess is overall this is the Russian answer to the DF-21 ASBM.

    • CIMC (History)

      Isn’t an upgraded Russian regional capability demanded to counter the threat of stealth delivery of nuclear sharing weapons? F-35’s with drop tanks, assuming a radius of >1600km, could deliver mod 12’s as far as Nizhny Novgorod.

      This capability seems, to me, nearly as destabilizing as the originally planned B-2 fleet, and much more so than a regiment of IRBM’s.

      But this is irrelevant if those F-35’s won’t be deployed nuclear-capable. IIRC Mr. Lewis believes it to be too expensive. The fact that the first Dutch F-16 squadron to be upgraded won’t be at Volkel seems to support that neither NATO, the US, or the Netherlands is very eager to start down this path.

      Is it reasonable that nuclear sharing will necessarily end after there aren’t any more non-stealth strike aircraft to deliver the weapons?

  2. N. Sokov (History)

    An excellent, very interesting piece. We discussed this with Jeffrey in considerable detail, so I think it would only make sense if I added my two cents that give me pause.

    The Rubezh tests were standard and I would hesitate to take them as a definitive measure of the new missile’s range. All missiles are flown from Plesetsk to Kura and from kapustin Yar to Sary-Shagan. In fact, the latter range has been used many times to test Topol, Topol-M, and Yars. Launches to Sary-Shagan serve to test defense penetrating capabilities. That is, one of the reasons to pause here is that three types of missiles that are clearly ICBMs have been tested to that 2,000-km range multiple times. This can be construed to mean that these three have an intermediate-range capability, except that legally they are still ICBMs. It remains to be seen what the maximum range of Rubezh might be – perhaps its main mission is, indeed, intermediate-range, perhaps not.

    Second, the size of the missile is not necessarily a reliable indicator of its mission. In the late 1980s the Soviet Union was developing a small, Midgetman-size ICBM, Kurier. More information (in Russian) is available here:; Pavel Podvig also has some info on his excellent site. Kurier’s TEL weighed 25 tons (the heavier, 5-wheel version) and could carry 35 tons. It’s size was not that different from Rubezh, it seems. The program was discontinued in 1991 as part of PNIs (actually it had been stopped earlier, but PNIs made it official), but nothing would prevent MITT from resurrecting the concept using technologies perfected in the context of the Topol-M-Yars series.

    Please note that I do not try to invalidate Jeffrey’s argument – only pointing out there are alternative possibilities and it would be hard to arrive at a definitive conclusion without additional information (and Russia has become very closed, same as the Soviet Union before it, and the secrecy did work in most cases against Soviet interests, in fact).

    On cruise missiles, the maximum range is difficult to verify, indeed. The definition only talks about the effective range (i.e., including all maneuvers). I talked about it in one of my own pieces on the INF in the last couple of months. On the other hand, I do not recall any special exchanges on the range of cruise missiles in the context of START I. The basic challenge was verification – the unused portion of fuel cannot be checked except through telemetry exchange, which does not apply to cruise missiles (it only applies to ballistic missiles and there unused fuel was limited to 2 percent).

    I do not know whether size matters much for cruise missiles, but R-500 seems too large for tactical range (it is reported to be a derivative of a much longer-range SLCM).

  3. Pavel (History)

    Just to note that we don’t really know if the cruise missile in question is R-500/Iskander. One of the reasonably reliable pieces of information in this story is that the U.S. believes that tests of the “violator” cruise missile began in 2008 and that it hasn’t been deployed yet. That doesn’t fit the Iskander profile.

    One theory that has been mentioned is that it’s a submarine-launched cruise missile that was at some point tested from a ground-based launcher. This could be a technical violation of the INF Treaty, although proving that would be quite difficult, probably even more difficult than a range-related one.

    • N. Sokov (History)

      No, we do not. From what I heard, the test in question was to a range significantly greater than what might be suspected if this were an R-500 flown to maximum range. Everyone (including myself in an earlier published piece) talks about R-500 because this is a cruise missile we know. It could be almost anything, in theory, even a SLCM that was launched for the first time from land; that hypothesis would fit (given the test in 2008) with a normal R&D process for the new SLCMs Russia has for Yasen sub. We just do not know, really.

  4. j_kies (History)

    Regarding a 2 stage version of the SS-27/RS-24; seems less efficient to have multiple versions. I doubt their popping the INF simply because flying ICBMs to MRBM or IRBM ranges has always been a technical option via deliberate thrust cutoff/GEM wastage. Russians expect to be well under NewStart limits, they have limited reasons to do anything except flexible ICBMs. Research effort to keep Solomonov’s people working perhaps?

    • Pavel (History)

      As I understand, even though it’s technically possible to fly ICBM to (much) shorter ranges, the idea is that RS-26 is significantly lighter and therefore easier to move around/hide than RS-24. This is very much what Karakayev said – 80 tonnes vs. 120 tonnes.

    • N. Sokov (History)

      Indeed, that was the rationale behind the Kurier. It was canceled for a different reason – the boost phase was too long making it vulnerable to the anticipated orbit-based interceptors (like lasers) that were exected to be part of SDI. Otherwise the idea seemed very attractive due to low weight (higher speed, lower detectability).

  5. Philipp (History)

    I’m struck by Jeffrey’s call, in the FP column, for robust action to bolster NATO alliance commitments to European states who may feel threatened by these Russian capabilities. Since Russia already has a host of ways of delivering nuclear warheads onto those targets, absent these missiles, it’s not clear to me why these Russian weapons should make states feel significantly more insecure than they already do (or don’t).

    Arguably the forward-deployed, shorter-range US missiles the INF Treaty eliminated were far more destabilizing, because of their ability to decapitate Moscow on short notice, than shorter-range Russian forces were, since decapitating London or Paris wouldn’t be sufficient to prevent American retaliation.

    I get that deterrence dynamics are often psychological in addition to rational, but am I missing anything else here?

    • Tobias Piechowia (History)

      Good point.
      Besides all Topols on mobile launch vehicles that can certainly hit any
      target in Europe what is the supposed psychological effect of these new

    • N.Sokov (History)

      When Russian military first spoke about withdrawal from the INF, which was in 2000, it was about the need to have an analogue to SS-20 with conventional warheads. Overall, it seems to me, the higher priority for Russia these days is long-range conventional strike assets. They would also constitute a more powerful leverage vis-a-vis Europe, although the main target areas, I believe, are to the South. This is one of the reasons why I remain uncertain about, for example, Rubezh since it seems to have a nuclear mission. A conventional long-range GLCM would make sense if they decided to obtain it.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The new missiles enable Russia to nuke the crap out of Western Europe without launching a weapon which might be mistaken as targeting CONUS, without weakening its deterrent against the United States, and generally without signalling “And now we shall play a game of Global Thermonuclear War”.

      To someone who fears a Russian strategy of threatening or attacking Western Europe while deterring US intervention, this is something new. Or rather, something old come round again. The significance may well be exaggerated, but it’s worth considering.

    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)

      Ah yes. That makes of course sense.
      A kind of restricted strike capability. But with an attack on Eastern- or Western Europe would immediately bring NATO to react which would again lead to “playing the thermonuclear game”…

    • anon (History)

      I had the audacity to ask a Polish defense analyst whether he felt threatened by Russian missiles, especially if there was a new GLCM. He said, yes, they felt threatened by Russia’s missiles, and, no, the new one didn’t make it worse. It was already bad enough. So, clearly, the idea that we should do something with military capability (or R&D) to respond to Russia’s activities represents more of a political/psychological response. Its rational in that it provides a response that Russia would understand, and might care about (as opposed to sanctions, which it won’t care about for years, and may adjust to long before then.)

      Actions should have consequences. We have few choices for meaningful consequences. And we certainly are not going to deploy new INF missiles in Europe. So the allies need to see some other “sign” of our commitment to them.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think conventionally-armed IRBMs would get Moscow’s attention. Also, Moscow is oddly sensitive to having its violations discussed in public. Hence, my proposals for letting the Russians have it in the State Department Compliance report, then having he Secretary of Defense announce a study on conventionally-armed IRBMs.

      In terms of who is threatened, the problem that I worry about is whether the RS-26 in particular will deepen the divide among new and old NATO members. One excellent reason for not pursuing nuclear-armed intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles is precisely that their deployment in Europe would exacerbate those divisions by stirring opposition in Western Europe. The Poles may already feel threatened by short-range Russian nuclear weapons, but I worry they may conclude the RS-26 will make some of their allies go a bit wobbly. At the very least, the Poles and Balts can hardly be encouraged by the European response to date.

      I only know one Polish defense analyst. I’ll ask the same question. I’ve had other conversations with interesting (and mixed) results.

    • j_kies (History)

      I have the original cardboard container with the cards

      Cough.. Start a conventionally armed IRBM program in the US? You mean the wonders of a non-system we call CPGS? Personally I have never considered the Russians silly enough to mirror our worst excesses.

  6. Cthippo (History)

    We’re all making the assumption that these are pointed exclusively at us and / or Europe, but keep in mind that Russia has another, much closer, strategic adversary to the south. The ranges we’re talking about here are at least as applicable to Peking as Paris.

    • N.Sokov (History)

      When the Russian military talked for the first time about withdrawing from the INF, which was in 2000, they said they needed a conventional analogue to SS-20 for targets in Afghanistan. Acquisition of conventional strike capability remains a top priority, so it seems. While primary targets appear to be to the South of Russia, these assets are also quite capable vis-a-vis Europe, in particular because they are usable unlike nuclear. I wrote a short piece on the European angle of these efforts ( I’d rather expect new members request greater reliance on nuclear weapons than Russia. One of the reasons why I remain uncertain about this whole INF problem – a nuclear INF capability does not make sense, but then policy does not always make sense; conventional capability would still be bannedby the treaty, but it might be desirable (and the new GLCM seems prefereable to Rubezh, which is by definition a nuclear missile). What I do not quite expect is a repetition of the early 1980s.

  7. krepon (History)

    If the problem is violation, circumvention or infringement of INF Treaty restraints in order to reassert Russia’s influence on former Warsaw Pact states and European allies, then mimicking Moscow’s moves with conventionally-armed ballistic missiles seems problematic: very old school, expensive, political difficulties with forward basing, etc.

    My inclination would be to plus up accounts of conventionally-armed stand-off weapons, and increase the tempo of aircraft in and out of European air bases. That would get Moscow’s attention, while reassuring friends and allies. Respond with modern means, in a flexible and adaptive way.