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How have Moscow and Washington violated the agreement? What's so dangerous about intermediate-range missiles? Meduza answers the questions about the INF Treaty that you're too afraid to ask

Meduza
Launch of an Iskander-K cruise missile during exercises in the Leningrad region in 2017
Launch of an Iskander-K cruise missile during exercises in the Leningrad region in 2017
Russian Defense Ministry / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On October 20, President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits Russia and the U.S. from developing or deploying missiles with short or intermediate ranges. After Trump’s declaration, National Security Adviser John Bolton flew to Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin, and in an interview with the newspaper Kommersant Bolton blamed Russia for the collapse of the arms control agreement, saying the Kremlin has violated the treaty constantly. Moscow, for its part, has also accused Washington of breaking the agreement. Meduza takes a look at why two countries with thousands of intercontinental missiles should want rockets with shorter ranges, who’s more to blame for the agreement’s disintegration, and what will happen, if the INF Treaty really is scrapped.

Why does Russia or the U.S. want short- and intermediate-range missiles? How are they any more dangerous than intercontinental missiles?

By the late 1970s, the world had almost stopped fearing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It was enough for the two sides of the Cold War to ensure that their missiles and payloads were roughly equal, and early-warning systems for detecting ICBM launches worked reliably, establishing a “nuclear deterrence” where each side understood that it would be annihilated if it launched its missiles.

The main advantage of short- and intermediate-range missiles is that they can reach their targets very quickly. ICBMs can take tens of minutes to deliver a warhead to enemy territory, while “short-” and “intermediate-range” missiles need mere minutes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the USSR and U.S. constantly suspected each other of developing or deploying these new missiles as part of a plan to carry out a “preventive strike” designed to destroy the other’s missile launchers and command and communications centers.

In 1976, the USSR started fielding a new intermediate-range missile complex called the RSD-10 Pioneer (given the reporting name “SS-20 Saber” by NATO). After reviewing the data about the Soviet Union’s plans to produce this weapon (hundreds of units, each armed with three nuclear warheads), American intelligence concluded that, in such quantities, Moscow could only need it to start a war in Europe.

Nuclear arms control treaties from the early 1970s didn’t apply to intermediate-range missiles, and the USSR felt it could produce them in any quantities without regard for U.S. opinion. According to a book by Field Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, published posthumously after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States actually tried to negotiate a ceiling on intermediate-range missile deployments, limiting the total number to those already in the field. Then the head of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate, Akhromeyev thought Moscow needed to give the Americans this assurance, and he even presented this argument to the Politburo, but it decided otherwise. According to figures released in the Defense Ministry’s 1999 book, “The Fatherland’s Missile Shield,” there were 567 warheads on deployed intermediate-range missiles in 1975. By 1983, these missiles — including the new Pioneer-class rockets — were loaded with 1,374 warheads.

In his book, “Collapse of an Empire,” Yegor Gaidar argued that the USSR’s massive production of Pioneer missiles had more to do with keeping the defense industry busy than serving the country’s military interests.

Washington responded to the new threat: in 1983, President Reagan deployed Pershing-II intermediate-range missiles in West Germany, targeting the USSR’s Pioneer launch sites. According to declassified American intelligence documents and the memoirs of defector and former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, Soviet leaders thought the Pershing missiles had another goal. Weapons capable of reaching Moscow in as little as five minutes, the Politburo worried, were part of a plan to “behead” the USSR before it could mount a counter-strike. Soviet intelligence was mistaken, however, overestimating the Pershing-II’s range. In fact, the new missiles deployed in West Germany couldn’t reach Moscow.

In response to Reagan’s Pershings, the Kremlin deployed its latest short-range missile, the OTR-23 Oka (SS-23 Spider), to Eastern Europe. These escalating weapons deployments led to the worst tensions between Moscow and Washington since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Why did the United States and Soviet Union agree to ditch these missiles?

After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Communist Party leadership decided to mend relations with the U.S. by renewing the stalled talks about a mutual withdrawal of short- and intermediate-range missiles from Europe. As a result, Gorbachev and Reagan went beyond reducing the number of these weapons, and agreed instead to dismantle them completely, also banning the development and testing of any new missiles of this type.

A Soviet inspector examines a dismantled Pershing-II missile in the United States in 1989
A Soviet inspector examines a dismantled Pershing-II missile in the United States in 1989
MSGT Jose Lopez Jr. / Wikimedia Commons

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed in 1987, banning not only ballistic missiles but any ground-based rockets with ranges greater than 500 kilometers (310 miles) and less than 5,500 kilometers (3,417 miles). In this weapons class, the Soviet Union had a distinct advantage: Washington destroyed 846 missiles under the treaty, while Moscow had to dismantle exactly a thousand more. According to Gaidar’s book, the Soviet leadership already sensed the looming economic crisis, and therefore decided during negotiations to agree to major concessions.

The INF Treaty additionally banned some cruise missiles, including several hundred Gryphons (the Tomahawk’s ground-based sibling, also capable of carrying a nuclear warhead), and several dozen RK-55 Relief (SSC-X-4 Slingshot) missiles. Cruise missiles lack the main advantage of ballistic missiles (blinding speed), but their low profile allows them to “hug the ground” when flying, making them nearly invisible to radar. In a “goodwill gesture,” Moscow actually agreed to dismantle its short-range OTR-23 Oka missiles, even though their range was below the minimum 500 kilometers.

The INF Treaty does not apply to missiles deployed at sea, on aircraft, or aboard submarines, giving an obvious advantage to the United States. By the early 1990s, the Americans had thousands of Tomahawks deployed on warships and submarines, as well as AGM-86 ALCM cruise missiles on warplanes. The USSR, meanwhile, was only just starting to produce such cruise missiles, after relying almost entirely on now prohibited ground-based missiles.

Did they really destroy all these missiles?

Yes. The treaty instituted a strict control mechanism and mutual inspections. The final ground-based Pioneers, Pershings, and Tomahawks were dismantled in May 1991. Several OTR-23 Oka missile complexes survived the purge in the arsenals of Warsaw Pact non-nuclear states. In exchange for U.S. financial aid, Bulgaria and Slovakia destroyed the last of their Oka missiles in 2002.

Do other countries have short- and intermediate-range missiles?

You betcha. More than 1,000 ground-based intermediate-range missiles comprise the bulk of China’s nuclear arsenal. Donald Trump has indicated that China’s reliance on these weapons is just another reason for the U.S. to shed the restraints of the INF Treaty, which don’t apply to Beijing. Speaking to the newspaper Kommersant, John Bolton said the arms control deal could be saved only if other countries agree to join. Bolton added, however, that the odds of China giving up its intermediate-range missiles are precisely zero, meaning that the treaty is doomed.

China's Dong-Feng 21 “carrier killer” Salvo Launch
defenseupdate

Russia hasn’t officially expressed concerns about China’s intermediate-range missile arsenal, but Vladimir Putin did state publicly in 2014 that he, too, was worried that “only us and the U.S. are limiting ourselves.” Putin singled out Pakistan as Moscow’s greatest concern among the world’s nuclear-armed powers with intermediate-range missiles, warning that the country’s “unfortunately unstable political regime” poses risks to Moscow.

In 2016, Pakistan started deploying Shaheen-III missiles, which have a maximum range of 2,750 kilometers (about 1,700 miles) — enough to deliver a warhead to the remote islands of the Andaman Sea, which belong to Pakistan’s main adversary, India. Fired in the opposite direction, these rockets could reach Moscow. Meanwhile, with a range of 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles), the Agni-III missiles in India’s arsenal could reach nearly any target in Russia, and the latest North Korean missiles have roughly the same range.

Israel is another (unofficial) member of the nuclear club, and it, too, has intermediate-range missiles. Its main rival in the region, Iran, has also developed such missiles, but it has yet to manufacture nuclear warheads.

Great Britain and France used to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles, but London pulled its American-made Thor rockets from service back in the 1960s, and Paris abandoned the last of these weapons in 1996, preferring sea-based missiles.

Why does the U.S. accuse Russia of violating the INF Treaty?

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, only Russia’s Communists complained vocally about the injustice of the INF Treaty. After the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 and began building missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, however, Russia’s military leadership also started turning on the INF Treaty.

In 2007, Russia deployed its first division of Iskander missile systems — a dramatically updated version of the OTR-23 Oka, manufactured at the exact same factory. Development of these weapons began in 1988, almost immediately after the INF Treaty was signed. Technically, the first modifications on Moscow’s Iskander missiles didn’t violate the terms of the agreement, because the weapon’s range was less than 500 kilometers.

An Iskander-K missile system launches a Kalibr cruise missile
Alexander Nikishin

In February 2017, The New York Times reported that Moscow was “challenging Trump” by secretly deploying two battalions of a prohibited cruise missile — one at Russia’s Kapustin Yar test site and the other at an undisclosed operational base. “Each missile battalion is believed to have four mobile launchers with about half a dozen nuclear-tipped missiles allocated to each of the launchers,” the newspaper wrote. The new “Iskander-K” systems are reportedly armed with modified X-101 cruise missiles, capable of reaching targets 5,000 kilometers away. Other sources, meanwhile, claim that the Iskander-Ks are loaded with ground-based versions of Russia’s Kalibr sea-based missiles.

According to The New York Times, the new missile system “closely resembles the mobile launcher used for the Iskander, a nuclear-tipped short-range system that is permitted under treaties,” making location and verification difficult, and adding to the threat against NATO forces in Europe.

Such a weapon obviously would have violated the terms of the INF Treaty, but Russia insists that Iskander-K missiles can’t travel more than 500 kilometers. The Russian Defense Ministry’s official television station, however, has stated that the new missile could “quite possibly” fly up to 1,000 kilometers. Additionally, the INF Treaty prohibits the production of cruise missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers, even if they’re never tested at such distances.

In 2012 and 2013, the Russian military tested the RS-26 Rubezh ballistic missile at distances less than 5,500 kilometers, raising questions about Moscow’s compliance with the INF Treaty. The Kremlin closed down the project in 2017, but replaced it with development of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can supposedly deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads across continents at Mach 20. In his state of the nation speech in March 2018, President Putin said the glider’s ability to maneuver at high speeds makes it “invulnerable” to any missile defense system. “It strikes like a meteorite, like a fireball,” he warned.

Why does Russia accuse the U.S. of violating the INF Treaty?

In the early 2000s, the U.S. started using Hera rockets in the development of its missile defense system. Washington says the weapon is only used as a target missile in tests, but Russia argues that the Hera’s range means it should be prohibited under the INF Treaty. Moscow also has concerns about America’s Reaper and Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, which they argue simply “bypass the treaty.”

The opening of the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense base in Deveselu, Romania, 2016
The opening of the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense base in Deveselu, Romania, 2016
Daniel Mihailescu / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Arguably the most apparent treaty violation by the United States is the recent deployment of a missile defense system in Romania. The site is built around an air-search radar linked to three 8-cell Mark-41 Vertical Launch Systems armed with Raytheon Standard Missile 3 interceptors. Capable of knocking out ICBMs, this same equipment is already used on U.S. Navy destroyers. This launcher, however, can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the INF Treaty directly prohibits any launcher that has test-fired intermediate-range rockets. Also, like Russia’s new Iskander missile systems, it’s impossible to determine visually what kind of missile is loaded into the Mark-41 launcher.

American officials naturally disagree with this assessment. In an October 2018 report for the Congressional Research Service, nuclear weapons policy specialist Amy Woolf acknowledged that the missile defense Mark-41 system uses some of the same structural components as the sea-based system, but argued that it “lacks the software, fire-control hardware, support equipment, and other infrastructure needed to launch offensive ballistic or cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk.”

Where and when might the U.S. and Russia deploy new missiles, once the INF Treaty is in the dustbin? Will these weapons be more powerful than the rockets Moscow and Washington destroyed?

It would be relatively simple for either country to begin deploying ground-based cruise missiles — the only obstacle would be financial restraints. Russia has already started fielding Iskander-K systems, and the U.S. could revive its production of ground-based Tomahawks. The United States has also allocated $57 million to the development of a new cruise missile “to counter a similar Russian weapon.”

Creating new intermediate-range ballistic missiles isn’t a priority for either country. Russia has delayed its RS-26 Rubezh program until at least 2027, and America’s plans to develop an updated Pershing missile remain a mystery.

The main difference between today’s missiles and the rockets deployed in 1987 is accuracy: modern missiles can be fired in massive conventional attacks against most targets with minimal loss of effectiveness and far less collateral damage. At the same time, intermediate-range missiles remain highly “toxic” in international relations because it’s difficult to detect these weapons’ ranges, targets, and payloads. In other words, thanks to their unpredictability, intermediate-range missiles will always put adversaries on edge.

What about all the other deadly nuclear weapons?

John Bolton has also advised President Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in 2021 and won’t likely be extended. Negotiated by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, New START replaced an existing arms control agreement and cut the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers deployed in both countries by half. Since Donald Trump signaled America’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty, Russian politicians have talked openly about the looming collapse of the world’s entire arms control system.

For the foreseeable future, however, a new arms race as extreme as what we witnessed in the Cold War is improbable, given that the production of hundreds or even thousands of new modern missiles would be cost prohibitive. Russia, at any rate, has actually been reducing its defense spending recently.

Text by Dmitry Kuznets, translation by Kevin Rothrock