Friday, October 19, 2007

Putin's Tongue-in-Cheek Proposal to Expand the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty

Over the last six months, Russia has repeatedly indicated that it is considering withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), an arms control agreement signed in 1987 whereby the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to destroy all ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.

A component of a Pershing Missile destroyed in 1988 under the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (photo from the Army's "Pershing Photo Archive")

Last Saturday, during high-level talks in Moscow, Putin offered a new angle on the withdrawal threat:
We need other international participants to assume the same obligations which have been assumed by the Russian Federation and the US. If we are unable to attain such a goal ... it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity.
Though Putin was not explicit, Russian neighbors with ballistic missile programs include Iran, Pakistan, India, and China. At first glance, Putin's demand seems compelling: Fairness would seem to dictate a broadening of the treaty's membership, and Central Asia could certainly benefit from more arms control. However, Putin's proposal is so impractical as to be practically tongue-in-cheek. As the Times of London observed in an editorial,
Mr. Putin's declaration that the INF treaty should become a global agreement was a clever stalling tactic because he knows that it would take years, if ever, to achieve such a deal.
The problem with Putin's proposal--which the Russian president is surely aware of--is that Russia and the United States were able to sign an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty only because they had substantial arsenals of longer-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). When INF was signed, the United States had 1000 ICBM launchers with 2,300 warheads, and the Soviet Union had 1,418 ICBM launchers with 6,872 warheads (figures courtesy of the Natural Resources Defense Council). Now, besides China, none of Russia's Asian neighbors have ICBMs: "intermediate-range" missiles are actually the longest range missiles in their arsenals.

But destroying intermediate-range missiles when a state has an arsenal of longer range missiles--as the US and Russia did via the INF treaty--is strategically incomparable to destroying those same missiles when they are the longest-range weapons in a state's arsenal.

Putin's laments about being at an unfair disadvantage relative to his neighbors are thus disingenuous--Russia did not, and could not, have signed INF until it had ICBMs, and it does not make sense to expect other countries to act differently. And while Russia may be targeted by its neighbors' intermediate range missiles, as Jacob Quamme of the Center for Defense Information explained, Russia is more than capable of deterring those states, even though it has no missiles with intermediate ranges.
Russian ICBMs do require minimum distances in order to be effective; however, Russia's growing fleet of road-mobile Topol-M missiles, rail-mobile systems and submarine-launched ballistic missiles can be positioned so as to put required targets within range relatively easily. Alternatively, air-launched cruise missiles are not restricted under the INF Treaty and could be used effectively in a hypothetical conflict.
As such, Russia is put at no practical disadvantage by the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles of its neighbors, nor is it "unfair" for those countries to remain outside the treaty that Russia signed, given the substantial Russian arsenal of ICBMs.

Halting the proliferation of ballistic missiles globally is a security necessity, but a Russian withdrawal from INF would be as counterproductive as it would be unjustified
. President Bush should avoid being side-tracked by this red herring of an arms control proposal, and work to ameliorate the U.S.-Russian tensions that are the real cause of Putin's interest in INF withdrawl.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Understanding that President Putin may have a serious interest in delaying or complicating U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, I am not as quick to dismiss his proposal. The idea of globalizing INF is neither new, nor uniquely Russian, nor obviously non-negotiable. INF was revolutionary when it was concluded and it required new ideas, new technologies, a new agency, and new openness to cooperation. Back when it seemed like globalization of various elements of the bilateral arms control process might happen, some thought a global INF treaty might be a relatively achievable stepping stone on the way toward including the five and the threshold states in the reductions process. In a context of weakening of the global regimes we have in place, it may be productive to live with President Putin's proposal a little longer before deciding we can live without it.