08/05/2013 - 07:24

Don't blame Moscow

Kingston Reif

Kingston Reif

Reif is the director of nuclear nonproliferation at the...

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On July 12, the US State Department released a major annual report on arms control compliance that has riled up nuclear weapons hawks. In its annual “Report on Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments,” the Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance assessed whether numerous countries complied with treaty obligations in 2012. Most of the media attention, though, has been on what the report says (and doesn’t say) about Russia. Since the report came out, Republican members of Congress and their supporters have repeatedly accused Moscow of violating arms control treaties, and the State Department of ignoring the problem.

By far the most significant compliance allegation against Russia is that it is testing ballistic missiles that are in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed in December 1987 by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the INF Treaty banned all US and Soviet land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. A June 25 story by journalist Bill Gertz cited two unnamed US intelligence officers claiming that in June, Russia tested a new ballistic missile that flouts that ban. Some members of Congress have pointed to questions about Russian compliance as evidence that seeking new negotiated nuclear reductions with Moscow, as President Barack Obama has sought to do, is a bad idea.

Are fears that Russia is running roughshod over its arms control obligations justified? Not according to the State Department compliance report. According to the publicly available evidence, the claims that Russia is violating the INF Treaty don’t hold water. In fact, the allegations of Russian cheating actually speak to the importance of international agreements. While Washington should continue to press Moscow on compliance issues, we should not lose sight of the tremendous national security benefits of arms control.

Let’s take a look at how the State Department’s Compliance Report assessed Russia’s behavior.

First, the report judged that Russia is in full compliance with New START, the nuclear arms reduction treaty it signed with the United States in 2010. Earlier this year, both the head of the US Strategic Command and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came to the same conclusion. New START limits the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. The treaty also contains rigorous monitoring and verification provisions to ensure compliance.

On the other hand, as in previous reports, the State Department raised concerns about Russia’s compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. The former prohibits signatories from developing or producing biological agents in types or quantities inconsistent with peaceful use. Whether Russia is complying is unclear. The Compliance Report states that Moscow “[remains] engaged … in [biological weapon]-relevant activities,” and cannot confirm that it has de-weaponized illicit biological assets that it inherited from the Soviet Union. The Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits states from using, stockpiling, and producing chemical weapons. The Compliance Report says Russia has not provided the United States with enough information to confirm that it has declared all of its chemical weapons and related facilities.

The Compliance Report also deemed Russia to be in non-compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, although this is not surprising, since Russia suspended its implementation in 2007. This treaty established limits on the numbers of tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, attack helicopters and combat aircraft that signatory states can deploy on the European continent. In November 2011, the United States announced that it would likewise “cease carrying out certain obligations” under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty with regard to Russia.

Regarding the INF treaty, though, the Report registered no concerns about Russian non-compliance. This appears to have infuriated House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA), who said that both the classified and unclassified versions of the report ignored possible Russian arms control violations.

Concerns about Moscow’s INF compliance appear to be rooted in Russia’s two most recent test flights of a new ballistic missile that some have dubbed the Yars-M. During those tests, which occurred in October 2012 and June 2013, Russia is believed to have flown the missile at a less-than-intercontinental range—that is, less than 5,550 km, which New START defines as the range of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Moscow had, though, previously stated that the new weapon is an intercontinental ballistic missile, and in May 2012 tested the Yars-M at a range of 5,800 km, which would qualify it as one under New START. Critics of arms control claim that Moscow is hiding its violations of the INF treaty (which permits no missiles in the 500-to-5,500-km range) by pretending that the Yars-M is an intercontinental ballistic missile permissible under New START. But testing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile to a range shorter than 5,500 km does not make it a banned INF missile. According to both the INF treaty and New START, the range of a missile is determined by the maximum range it demonstrates in a flight test, even if future tests are flown at a range of less than 5,500 km.

In addition to the State Department Compliance report, a July 2013 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center on global ballistic and cruise missiles also found no evidence of Russian INF non-compliance. The Center’s report says that “neither Russia nor the United States produce or retain any [medium-range ballistic missile] or [intermediate-range ballistic missile] systems because they are banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

Overall, the State Department report does not paint a picture of a predatory Russia hell-bent on undermining the prohibitions of every arms control agreement to which it is a party. While there are longstanding questions about Russia’s compliance with some agreements, these do not outweigh the accomplishments of arms control treaties, which continue to provide valuable information and reduce threats and risks. The fact remains that US and global security are much better off with Russia a party to these treaties rather than a bystander.

There is, to be sure, much confusion about Russia’s missile program, including the fact that Russian officials have used different names to describe the Yars-M. The concerns are heightened by the fact that there are hardline voices both inside and outside the Russian government who have been arguing for some time that Moscow should abrogate the INF treaty in response to China’s accumulation of medium-range missiles. But as some experts have already noted, Russia could also be testing its intercontinental-range missiles at shorter ranges to improve capabilities against US missile defenses. US intelligence professionals and diplomats are no doubt sifting through this noise and seeking greater transparency from Russia about its missile development activities.

Yet Russia’s development of the Yars-M actually demonstrates the importance of arms control. Because the new missile has been tested at an intercontinental range, it would be covered as such under New START. Russia could still fly the missile at a shorter range if it so chose, but that wouldn’t violate the INF treaty and it would still count as a delivery system under New START limits, so Moscow wouldn’t gain any militarily significant advantage. Thanks to New START’s robust monitoring and verification provisions, the United States will be able to closely monitor and inspect the missile, a golden opportunity it would not have without the treaty.

The critics of further US nuclear weapons reductions are throwing everything they’ve got at Obama in an effort to derail additional cuts. Allegations that Russia is serially violating its arms control commitments are but one example of the mudslinging.  However, the evidence presented to date does not support these charges, nor does it cancel out the many merits of further bilateral arms control.

Editor's note: The author thanks Sam Kane, a summer intern at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, who provided research assistance for this article.