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The Crisis of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the Global Context

GCSP Geneva Paper – Research Series n°16

Release Date:

December 2015

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Executive Summary

The groundbreaking Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on the permanent elimination of all intermediate-range missiles by the United States (US) and Russia was signed in 1987. A recent difficulty in the relationship between the two countries emerged in summer 2014 when the US officially accused Russia of violating the treaty. Despite this, Russia has not expressed an intention to formally withdraw from the treaty.

An end to this temporary impasse is unforeseeable at the moment. There are many reasons to believe that the Obama administration will treat this serious problem in a “businesslike” way, i.e. on the expert level, until the end of its term and will not give in to internal political pressure that the US should itself withdraw from the INF Treaty.

Apart from good political reasons, there are also sound military reasons to consider this the right approach, especially from a European perspective: on the one hand, it is highly likely that the treaty violation does not yet involve newly introduced Russian ground-launched cruise missiles. On the other hand, Russia is expanding its strategic capacity by introducing a new ballistic missile (RS-26 Rubezh) that, like the old SS-20, can reach every point in NATO Europe in minutes. This new missile is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which means it does not violate the letter of the treaty, but may
violate its spirit.

Despite the merits of the INF Treaty, the current situation clearly points to the limits of its regime. While Europe is free to threaten or take deterrent or defensive measures against the Russian treaty violation, it is in the continent’s interests to save the treaty, because its abrogation will not increase European security. The European public should therefore participate more actively in the discussion about the future of the INF Treaty, examine European interests, and work towards maintaining the treaty.

The prevailing political climate between Russia and the West in general and the constantly increasing strategic-operative importance of nuclear weapons in Russia in particular are challenging enough. The fact that the nuclear strategic arms control system (the New Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) follows the right path gives cause for cautious optimism in this context.

The INF dossier is linked with the missile defence dossier. It can be assumed that Russia is serious about its consistent announcements and targets missile defence sites in Europe. The means of first choice in this regard are ballistic and/or cruise missiles.