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Commentary | 1 May 2019

Controlling missiles in a post-INF world

Image of Dmitry Stefanovich

Dmitry Stefanovich |Research Fellow at the Center for International Security, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS)

Arms Control Defence Europe INF Nuclear Weapons Russia Russia-West Relations Global Security

As the INF Treaty hurtles full-speed toward demise this August, the debate on preserving at least some of its legacy heats up. Should the Treaty die, a prerequisite to achieving the best possible outcome is for all parties involved to exercise self-restraint. This must be well-defined in terms of weapon systems (developed or otherwise) and in terms of geographical regions for deployment and/or restriction.

Russia has already committed to non-deployment of intermediate and shorter-range missiles in regions where no US missiles are present. NATO (and the US) appear to be planning for conventional, non-nuclear missiles, at least initially. However, mutual accusations of INF Treaty violations (or even material breaches) by Russia and the US heavily affect these initial positive signs, namely readiness to limit deployments in terms of geography and payload.

A major hurdle is that both sides demand the full and verifiable destruction of alleged violating missiles and systems by the opposing party. The most important of these appear to be the Russian 9M729 (SSC-8) ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), deployed as part of Iskander-M “operative-tactical” missile system, and the land-based vertical launchers of the Aegis Ashore missile defence system – believed to be capable of hosting land-attack missiles. The US is neither ready to provide the public with smoking-gun evidence of the violation nor to accept Moscow’s explanation of the technical specifications of the missile in question. Consequently, Russia will not agree to destroy or limit its deployment, as it believes it to be compliant with INF Treaty provisions.

A path forward may be to switch the topic of discussion between Russia and the West from the missile to the launcher, such as was presented at Kubinka in January. In this way, by focussing on the launcher rather than the missile, a level of symmetry between Russian and US accusations may be achieved, and similar solutions to ensure absence of INF-violating missiles in or close to the launchers could be found.

Ground-launched cruise missiles are not the main military issue, as their effect on strategic stability remains limited. Greater problems will arise as soon as Russia and the US start the testing, production and deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, including those with hypersonic glide vehicles. There is hope that both countries understand the perils. Moving Russian “INF-range” systems East of Urals may help to limit threats to the European theatre, but if those are located at Kamchatka or Chukotka peninsula, the Western part of the continental US becomes vulnerable to new types of threats.

Both sides have made claims and deployments to emphasise their intermediate-range capabilities in sea and air domains. The US deployed bombers capable of launching cruise missiles on the British Isles, and flew sorties over the Baltic region. Russia responded with flights of strategic bombers around the North and the Black seas. The Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic aero-ballistic missile deployed on MiG-31K supersonic jets carrying out patrols over Caspian and Black seas is yet another example of Russia’s long-range strike capability. Surface ships and submarines armed with land-attack cruise missiles are similarly deployed to areas of interest by both navies. Russian sea-launched hypersonic missiles on surface ships and submarines on patrols near the US exclusive economic zone have been mentioned as an option to offset US land-based deployments in the Russian near-abroad. Such dynamics lead to several conclusions with regard to a post-INF architecture for European (and global) security.

There are still options to address existing issues with INF compliance to limit the dangers – at least regionally – and to pave the way towards new regimes. First, discussing “INF-capable launchers” without an emphasis on missile type may be useful, as rough symmetry between claims made by Russia and the US may be thus achieved. New missiles and related weapons are being developed, alongside new technologies, so using the range and flight trajectory to define missiles as in the case of the original INF Treaty may become irrelevant.

Second, both sides can exercise self-restraint in terms of deployment numbers. Payload and geography may be declared, but is not yet codifed and vaguely defined. It may be useful to provide Russia and the US with some “drafts” of potential deployment declarations to use for unilateral initiatives. European countries (e.g. France or Germany), as well as the OSCE, seem well-positioned to develop such draft declarations.

Third, inspections under the Open Skies Treaty and Vienna Document are valuable to ensure that self-restraint is indeed in place, that countries are respecting their unilateral commitments and that no one (or third party) is trying to take advantage. National technical means of verification (NTM) have to be used to evaluate how declared assets correspond with reality, as for instance “New START” level inspections seem highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, ground-based systems can be countered with similar capabilities in other domains. Even if there will be some limits on ground-based missiles, these may not lead to immediate improvements in regional security, although achieving some understanding will be helpful in itself. It may be useful to discuss transparency and confidence-building measures to cover all long-range precision strike capabilities (including air- and sea-based systems) – and start by defining those.

Last, but not the least, the argument widely popular among INF Treaty critics about third states possessing missiles of the relevant range requires further research. It is highly doubtful that the drivers behind development and deployment of intermediate and shorter-range nuclear forces by the USSR and the US in 1980s are the same as the reasons for conceptually similar systems of other counties today. Thus, arguments other than range capability and basing mode must be used if the US and Russia are sincere in their desire to establish a new regime covering third states.

European countries are often dismissed for not having a substantive offering for the post-INF debate table, either militarily or politically. In part, they have contributed to this attitude by largely abstaining from multi-year accusations and counter-accusations between Moscow and Washington on the INF. Fears of “undermining transatlantic unity” have also prevented European capitals from making bold moves. Today our subcontinent is in grave danger, and given the state of Russo-American military-political affairs, local governments and intergovernmental organizations such as OSCE must take the lead to provide the stop-gap solution. After all, the OSCE’s “Framework for Arms Control” agreed upon back in 1996 remains relevant: the concept of the indivisibility of security must be the sole foundation for arms control in Europe. The OSCE Structured Dialogue may be a platform for the preparation of new measures. The INF Treaty is not a major topic for OSCE, but the self-restraint announced by Russia in the form of the “no-first-deployment” principle may be supported (or even assured) by this organization, or even by the establishment of some kind of a mission to monitor compliance, i.e. absence of intermediate and shorter-range missiles deployed by any party in the relevant regions.


The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.