Leaving the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, the United States will take one step forward and many steps back in international security issues, the British expert said. In his opinion, the only way that Russia can counter NATO’s arsenal is to develop more deadly non-nuclear land-based missiles. Cancellation of the INF Treaty as it exists will make such a development scenario much more likely.
The Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range
Missiles is widely regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the
arms control policy, since it prohibits the two leading world powers
from owning a whole class of nuclear missile systems. The statement that
the Trump administration made at the end of last year – that it could
withdraw the United States from this treaty – forced the experts to
start talking about the beginning of a new arms race.
The United States claims that Russia violates the terms of this treaty by deploying ground-based 9M729 cruise missiles, and that Moscow is obliged to return to compliance with this treaty by the beginning of February, otherwise Washington will initiate the process of the US withdrawal from this treaty.
But the withdrawal from the INF Treaty can harm the United States itself. Moscow does not need additional nuclear potential. However, it will benefit enormously by having the opportunity to openly deploy new non-nuclear ground-based missiles in the event of the US withdrawal from this treaty.
Nevertheless, there was almost no discussion about the impact that the US withdrawal from the treaty would have on the development of non-nuclear weapons systems in Europe. Despite its name, the INF Treaty does not only prohibit land-based missiles with a range from 500 to 5,500 kilometers, but also implies the elimination of all smaller, intermediate and intermediate-range missiles belonging to Moscow and Washington, regardless of the type of their warheads. For this reason, withdrawal from the INF Treaty will have serious consequences that will affect not only the US and Russian nuclear arsenals.
The fact that the INF Treaty will also prohibit land-based missiles with non-nuclear warheads was not considered as important at the time of its signing, since it was then that nuclear weapons were the main focus. Some already saw the growing potential of long-range precision weapons: in 1984, the then head of the USSR General Staff Nikolai Ogarev said that the presence of such systems could ‘dramatically increase the destructive potential of conventional weapons, bringing them closer to weapons of mass destruction in the sense of effectiveness.’ However, the full destructive potential of such weapons was yet to be demonstrated, and the war in the Persian Gulf in 1990-1991, as well as military actions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, confirmed the viewpoint of supporters of non-nuclear high-precision guided strike systems. Then the concept of Tomahawk diplomacy appeared in the American foreign policy lexicon.
Russia has restored positions in the field of high-precision guided weapons as part of its program for the revival of the armed forces. In the process, Russia increasingly focused on non-nuclear strategic weapons, which now had to perform functions previously attributed to nuclear forces. The current military doctrine of Russia, published in 2014, states that Russia considers high-precision guided weapons as a key element of its strategic deterrent potential. The Russian Maritime Doctrine published in 2017 states: “With the development of high-precision weapons, the Navy faces a qualitatively new task – the destruction of the military-economic potential of the enemy by defeating its vital objects from the sea.”
Russia has combined the evolution of its military strategy on paper with the deployment of systems capable of performing the tasks assigned. In the sea, new and modernized ships and submarines are now equipped with 3M-14 Caliber cruise missiles – missiles with a range of 1500-2500 kilometers. In the air, the Russian VKS Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers are equipped with X-101 air-launched cruise missiles with a range of at least 2500 kilometers. Both of these systems were used against targets in Syria. The additional air-to-ground systems that bombers and tactical fighters will be equipped with — including the Kh-47M2 Dagger and X-50 missile systems — are either already in service or under development.
Moscow also launched ground-based high-precision weapons, in particular,
the 9K720 Iskander-M ballistic missile system and the Iskander-K 9K728
missile system for launching cruise missiles. However, according to the
current INF Treaty, their potential range is still limited to 499
kilometers. For Russia, this is a big omission. The US Air Force and the
US Navy allow the NATO alliance to collect a huge arsenal of cruise
missiles that are not covered by the INF Treaty just because they are
launched from ships, submarines and airplanes. Since Russia does not
have the resources that NATO has at sea and in the air, the only way
Russia can withstand this arsenal is to develop more deadly non-nuclear
land-based missiles. Cancellation of the INF Treaty as it currently
exists will make this scenario much more likely. Although this treaty
could not completely prevent Russia from deploying weapons that it
prohibits, as the deployment of 9M729 cruise missiles clearly
demonstrated, they entered service in limited quantities.
Russia, of course, does not like the limitations of the INF Treaty: in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that this treaty actually led to unilateral disarmament. According to him, the Soviet Union did not have medium-range weapons, sea and air-based, which the United States had (although this is not true). Then, in order not to appear weak, Putin declared that Russia does not need such weapons, since it has a new missile arsenal. However, he emphasized that Russia could easily modify its sea-based and air-launched missiles so that they could be launched from the ground — perhaps it was an attempt to troll those who suspect that 9M729 is the same Caliber, just modified so that it can be run from a ground platform.
Despite Putin’s statements, the current non-nuclear strategic strike potential is powerful, but not insurmountable. Various initiatives by NATO members — improving ground-based air defense systems and reassessing the alliance’s military presence in the northern waters — are likely to further reduce Russia’s capabilities. But if the INF treaty is left in the past, Russia will be able to openly start mass production of non-nuclear options 9M729 or other similar systems. If they are launched from territories in western Russia, such missiles can reach almost anywhere in Europe. Freed from the limitations of this treaty, Moscow will be able to use relatively cheap mobile launchers instead of expensive ships or aircraft to create non-nuclear strike forces. This will allow Russia to achieve a rather powerful deterrent effect and, if applied, to cause serious damage to the NATO countries.
In the end, the nuclear systems at Moscow’s disposal are more than adequate given its needs. Meanwhile, the increase in its non-nuclear potential will be its greatest reward – and the most serious threat to the West. For this reason, the United States should think well before putting an end to the INF Treaty and falling into a potential Kremlin trap.
Rowan Allport is a senior fellow at the British non-profit think tank of the Human Security Center, which specializes in foreign policy issues.