Jane VaynmanNot So Peaceful Skies: More INF Concerns

On February 23, Russia celebrated Fatherland Defender Day. I heard many toasts ending with “za mirnoe nebo” or to the peaceful skies.

Seems like a great opportunity to again call attention to Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) issues, which I blogged about last week. Clearly, I think there is more to say. Since last week, there has been little coverage and seemingly little concern over possible Russian INF withdrawal in western press. In Moscow however, it has been mentioned in newspapers and on the radio regularly. I am concerned that Russia really means business and observers in the US are not paying attention.

Why INF withdrawal?

Russian military expert and journalist Pavel Felgenhauer addressed one of the key questions in the Eurasian Monitor last Wednesday. Is the threat of a Russian INF withdrawal really connected to US missile deployments in Eastern Europe? Why does Russia want out of the INF?

In their statements, Russia officials seem to by trying very hard to link INF withdrawal with concerns over the missile deployments. In my last post, Chuck pointed out comments by U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley who said he did not see link between US missile deployments and the INF. Given the rhetoric in Moscow, I doubt that sentiment will go very far with Russian politicians or public opinion.

However, Felgenhauer, as well as Hughes and Zeihan at Stratfor.com, argue that the INF “response” to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) deployments is rather a pretext for a withdrawal which the Russians have wanted for some time. It is a pretext they need politicaly, and as Hughes and Zeihan note, to legitimize withdrawal:

To withdraw, a signatory must provide six months’ notice along with a statement explaining “extraordinary events” that endanger the withdrawing party’s “supreme interests.” Though there is no defined threshold for “extraordinary events,” Moscow has been laying the groundwork for withdrawal by characterizing the emplacement of U.S. BMD installations in Europe as just that.

During a recent Carnegie Moscow Center event General Dvorkin, former head of the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, dismissed the arguement of a military threat from the deployments. General Dvorkin argued that Russia’s anger comes from the fact that the US made offers to Poland and the Czech Republic without consulting or including Russia.

So if not to respond to threat from BMD, why does Russia want medium range missiles? Felgenhauer argues that the issue is access to regional targets in the Caucuses.

To compensate for the Oka [SS-23, eliminated under the INF], Russia developed another missile, the Iskander-M, with a declared range of 280 kilometers, a half-ton payload, and enhanced accuracy… In fact, the Iskander-M has potentially a bigger range (up to 500 kilometers) than officially announced. To realize the full Iskander-M potential and make it a more potent weapon, the INF must go (Strana.ru, February 16).


Using mobile launchers deployed in North Ossetia and in Dagestan, the Russian military could effectively cover all of Chechnya during the 1999-2000 offensive. But should a conflict erupt elsewhere in the Caucasus or, perhaps, in Crimea near Sevastopol, the SS-21s deployed in the North Caucasus will be of little help, and the Iskander-M will be useful only with a range enhanced to 500 kilometers.

While the Kremlin rhetoric is today aimed at Washington and its possible strategic missile defense deployments, the true target is the INF. Moscow wants to deploy new missiles that cannot reach the United States, but are designed for neighbors. That was in essence the thrust of Putin’s Munich speech, aimed at the West: Accept us as equals and give us at last our sphere of influence within the region. Keep out! Stop poking into our neighborhood—or we may go ballistic.

The authors of the Strafor article argue, in contrast, that Russian IRBM capability is intended to threaten Europe and hold a “lopsided” arms race with the US. Yet unlike this more expected explanation, Felgenhauer makes a very interesting point about Russia’s interests. If the Cold War dynamic has indeed passed, Russia’s strategy may be shifting to increasingly regional goals, eastward rather than west.

Important to save the treaty

Rose Gottemoeller, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center where I am based for my Fulbright, has several comments on the situation:

First, instead of abandoning the entire treaty, there could be an opportunity for the US and Russia to agree to a bilateral exception for specific projects (extending range of a missile on the Russian side, while the US may be interested in testing medium range missiles as part of the BMD).

Second, internationalization of the treaty could be a good idea, bringing in countries like China.

More broadly, Gottemoeller expressed concern that this treaty would be dismissed all too casually as one more of those Cold War agreements. Yet US and Russia abandoning this treaty would be another significant step away from fulfilling their obligations under Article 6 of the NPT.


  1. Arthur Fitzgerald

    Both views of Russia’s reasons are true to an extent. Russia wants MRBMs as a threat which would split ‘old Europe’ from ‘new Europe’ and the USA, while simultaneously being ready for use as a deterrent against the PRC and other Asian threats. A 500 km range is insufficient for these purposes, so Russia will likely develop an extended-range version of the SS-12M Scaleboard B missile.

  2. Amyfw (History)

    Sorry, I’m one of those people who is having trouble taking this Russian threat seriously, especially since the Russians trotted out this threat a few years back as one of their possible responses to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and deployment of long-range defenses. We did it, they didn’t. Ho hum.

    On the other hand, if the threat really is derived from their desire to deploy a new, short-range missile for regional use, then I’m wondering, so what? While such a capability may pose a political challenge to the U.S. or NATO, I don’t see it as a threat to us or our allies. Of course, modifying, and keeping the treaty may seem better than losing it. But, really, what do we lose, from a security perspective, if we lose the Treaty? Is the only argument in favor of keeping it that NPT Article VI issue? If it is, that’s not enough to make me care.

  3. Muskrat (History)

    I agree that letting the INF Treaty fall apart would be a step back from NPT obligations, as well as a bad sign for regional stability and missile proliferation. But suggesting that the US and Russia could modify it on their own overlooks the fact that we currently hold all the former USSR successors to be parties to the treaty, and any significant modication would never be ratified by all of them. Thus, we have the choice of releasing all the FSU states from their obligations, or living with the restraints ourselves. Widening its application would be a great step against missile proliferation, but faces several obstacles: a) the treaty contains no provisions for adding new parties, b) the parties it would be best to add are the ones least likely to give up their IRBMs, and c) the world’s not in the mood to do the U.S. any favors at the moment.

    I think the best resposne to Russian grumbling is to point out that if Russia is free to make and field MRBMs and IRBMs, then so is Ukraine (with non-nuclear warheads, but still…).

  4. Robot Economist (History)

    Am I the only one that immediately saw the rubble signs in Putin’s eyes when we suggested abandoning the INF treaty? I know the INF didn’t exactly preclude research into intermediate range missiles, but it does preclude production.

    Many countries have old SCUD Bs, Cs and Ds dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Not to sound too much like a Rumsfeld Comission staffer, but I bet an updated version of the SCUD would be a popular seller. I wonder if the Russians would consider selling the Iskander or Oka, provided their production lines still exist.

  5. Andy (History)

    Geostrategic issues aside, I think it’s useful to examine Russian history and culture for explanations as well.

    Russia’s history of invasion and domination by outside powers, particularly during WWI and WWII, produced a Russian cultural identity distrustful of the west. Part of the reason Stalin created the eastern block was to provide a buffer zone against future aggression and invasion.

    In this context, it’s not surprising that many Russians have a cultural fear of Nato expansion to their border along with the proposed deployment of strategic weapons, no matter the reality of the strategic situation. Russian weakness when compared to NATO and the EU only exacerbates this fear.

    I’ve always thought the US in particular never fully acknowledged this aspect of the Russian psyche and I believe it’s one reason for the success of anti-democratic policies in Russia.

    Adding to NATO expansion is the instability in Central Asia and some of it’s former Republics as well as a resurgent and growing China in the east.

    Russia’s in a pretty tough neighborhood and considering their history, is it really all that much of a surprise that they’d respond in the manner they did?

  6. Andy (History)

    The Russian press reported on Lavrov’s comments today:

    “Every separate component poses no military strategic threat on its own, but the number of these components is increasing rapidly,” he said, adding that Russia could not turn a blind eye to this trend and wait for the moment when “somebody is tempted to backtrack on the commitment not to use this system against Russia.”

    From: http://en.rian.ru/russia/20070227/61343967.html

  7. Jane (History)

    I have read similar statements that while the planned missile deployments do not pose a threat to Russia, but they open the door for other US missile defense deployments or improvements to these, which could, in the future, pose a threat to Russia.

    As with Lavrov’s comment which Andy posted above, I am not sure what the Russians are technically referring to. What kind of improvements or other advancements could threaten Russia? Do they mean someday a long time from now when missile defense becomes effective against hundreds of missiles and Russia makes no changes to compensate?

    Also, isn’t the question of a threat to Russia not about intent, but about capabilities? Perhaps it matters politically who is being targeted, but technically it does not matter whether the missile defense systems are targeted against Russia or not… they would not effectively stop an intentional Russian attack on Europe. Am I missing something on how these missile deployments could be used or what could be added to them at some point? Even if Russia is concerned about aging nuclear forces and so less warheads in the future, it seems like that reduction would have to be very considerable for the BMD to pose a threat.

  8. Arthur Fitzgerald

    Jane, there are two distinct threads in Russia’s thinking on BMD. The military thread is concerned with Russia’s second-strike capabilities. The Russians are concerned that by the middle of the next decade America will be able to sufficiently degrade Russia’s nuclear forces with a first strike so that a limited NMD system can neutralise any Russian response. This perceived threat dominates Russian military thinking.

    The other thread is political and interests Putin and the presidential administration rather more than than the military. This focuses on the political weakness of Western Europe and sees an opportunity to reassert Russian dominance in Eastern and Central Europe by exploiting the Euroatlantic split and Russia’s control of commodity supplies. In this context, Russia wants to position itself as responding to a US provocation so that it can deploy IRBMs that threaten Central Europe without inviting a barrage of Western European criticism. This is to be enhanced by the missiles having insufficient range to attack targets in Western Europe, thus reassuring France and Germany. It is hoped that European disunity will force the curtailment of the NMD deployment or at the very least prevent a Reaganite response to Russian actions in the form of an American INF deployment.

  9. Chuck

    An important aspect of INF is that it eliminated an entire category of delivery system. Although the few medium range systems that Russia might deploy may not negatively impact US or European security in a significant way, ditching INF would at least be a symbolic move. Symbolism is important.
    – – – My discussions with Russian officials suggest that Russia would be happy to ditch INF and would welcome the lifting of its constraints. However, Russia has hesitated in part due to its concerns over what the United States and NATO might deploy if so unconstrained.