What is the INF Treaty?
Signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is the only Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement that remains in force today. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, at which point all U.S. and Soviet INF missiles had been eliminated, the United States sustained the INF Treaty with the Russian Federation and some other successor states. Today, only Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan actively participate in the INF Treaty with the United States.
The INF Treaty required both countries to destroy their stockpiles of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The treaty, which covers both nuclear and conventionally armed missiles, also prohibits signatories from possessing, producing, and flight-testing these kinds of missiles. It was the first agreement of its kind to reduce nuclear missile stocks instead of merely establishing a limit on arsenals. While the treaty required the elimination of missile bodies and launchers, it did not result in the elimination of nuclear warheads.
After the treaty entered into force in 1988, the United States and Soviet Union dismantled and destroyed about 800 and 1,800 missiles, respectively, along with related equipment such as launchers. A pillar of the treaty was a rigorous verification regime, including on-site inspection, which allowed parties to physically confirm the other's implementation. Both sides came into full compliance in the summer of 1991, months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, by completely eliminating the systems covered by the treaty. On-site inspection activity ended in 2001, in accordance with the treaty.
The treaty also established a forum known as the Special Verification Commission for parties to address and resolve compliance concerns. It has met thirty times, with the most recent meetings taking place in November 2016 and December 2017. (The most recent meeting before 2016 took place in October 2003.)
What is the state of INF Treaty compliance today?
In recent years, both the United States and Russia have alleged the other has violated the INF Treaty, and many defense analysts say the thirty-year-old treaty is in danger of unraveling. These allegations have accompanied a general decline in bilateral ties following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of State said Russia violated its obligation not to “possess, produce, or flight-test” missiles prohibited by the treaty, although officials did not provide details as to the nature of the alleged violation. In December 2017, the U.S. State Department offered specifics, identifying a system the Russian military calls the 9M729, an extended-range version of the Iskander K, which is a short-range cruise missile that is compliant with the INF Treaty. The United States alleges the 9M729 violates the agreement.
Russia, for its part, has rejected these claims and alleged that the United States has itself violated the INF Treaty by deploying a component of a missile defense system—the Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS)—that is capable of launching offensive missiles. It also claims the United States has used banned missiles in missile defense tests and that some U.S. armed drones are effectively banned cruise missiles.
U.S. officials deny these allegations. Regarding the VLS, they note that the text of the INF Treaty allows systems designed solely for intercepting “objects not located on the surface of the earth.” This VLS is part of missile defense systems the United States has deployed at sea and in Europe to protect allied countries from limited missile attacks by regional powers like Iran. However, Russia has long questioned U.S. motives, and says VLS systems on U.S. warships can launch both offensive cruise missiles and missile defense interceptors. In December 2017, the U.S. State Department rebutted each Russian allegation of U.S. violations of the INF Treaty.
Do Russia’s alleged violations alter the strategic environment?
Several U.S military leaders have said that Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty places allied forces in jeopardy. Testifying before the U.S. Congress in March 2017, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul J. Selva noted that the INF Treaty-violating system “presents a risk to most of our facilities in Europe.”
At the same time, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, NATO’s supreme allied commander, added that [PDF] “Russia’s fielding of a conventional/nuclear dual-capable system that is prohibited under the INF Treaty creates a mismatch in escalatory options with the West.”
However, in July 2017 testimony, Selva told lawmakers that the INF Treaty-violating system does not give Russia any particular military advantage in Europe “given the location of the specific missiles and deployment.”
The State Department’s 2017 Arms Control Compliance Report [PDF] said Washington was “consulting with allies to review a range of appropriate options should Russia persist in its violation.”
Where does the INF Treaty go from here?
Both the United States and Russia may reassess the continued compatibility of the INF Treaty with their national defense priorities in the coming years. In October 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would adhere to the treaty as long as the United States does the same. According to the memoirs of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Moscow proposed a joint termination of the treaty in 2007 so it could deploy intermediate-range missiles in its south and east to “counter Iran, Pakistan, and China.” The United States rejected the offer.
On December 8, 2017, the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the treaty, the Trump administration announced a new strategy to respond to alleged Russian violations. The United States would continue to pursue diplomacy but would also take “economic and military measures intended to induce the Russian Federation to return to compliance.” Military options under consideration include the research and development of conventional ground-launched intermediate-range missile systems, which the administration says would not violate the treaty.
Moreover, in its inaugural Nuclear Posture Review, released in February 2018, the Trump administration proposed development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, which U.S. defense leaders have also suggested might entice Russia to come back into compliance. However, experts question whether these research activities would instead accelerate the treaty’s demise.
For now, the impasse over compliance remains. Arms control advocates recommend that the United States and Russia continue to use the Special Verification Commission to resolve outstanding disputes.
How does China factor into the INF debate?
In recent years both the United States and Russia have become more wary of China’s military capabilities. China's growing nuclear and conventional missile inventory is mostly composed of systems in the INF Treaty-prohibited range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, recommended in April 2017 testimony that the United States renegotiate the treaty with Russia because it limits its ability to “to counter Chinese and other countries’ cruise missiles, land-based missiles.” Russian military officials, too, have pointed to Moscow’s perceived imbalance with China [PDF] in this area as a possible factor leading to the eventual demise of the treaty.
Other observers have recommended that the United States seek to bring China into the INF Treaty or seek a separate, similar agreement with Beijing. However, China has expressed no interest in joining the INF Treaty, and experts are doubtful that Beijing would consider participating in the future.