Responses to Russian INF Treaty Violations


  • For years, Russia has been developing a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the INF Treaty. President Obama did essentially nothing in response. This must change.
  • The United States should link its actions on other arms control treaties to Russian compliance with the INF Treaty, as well as develop military response options.
  • This creates incentives for Russia to come back into compliance with the treaty; but also prepares for a world in which the treaty no longer exists because Russia has abrogated it.
  • We should also reaffirm our commitment to modernizing our own nuclear arsenal.

russian inf treaty violation threatens u.s. interests

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. As with most other arms-control commitments between the United States and Russia, the U.S. is upholding its end of the bargain, while Russia is not. Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. The Russian violation of the INF Treaty is particularly blatant, and it poses a significant threat to our allies.

If Russia were to deploy these systems, there would potentially be a military vulnerability and a gap in America’s ability to respond. Russia would be able to hold our allies at risk in a way that we could not commensurately hold Russia at risk. Deterrence and defense capabilities could be considered weakened. Deployment of these systems in violation of the INF Treaty cannot “go unanswered,” as General Phillip Breedlove said in April 2014, when he was the supreme allied commander of Europe.

Russia INF Violations

deterrence and defense in response to russian violation

We could reinvigorate America’s deterrence and defense capabilities either by bringing Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, or by developing military responses to this Russian military advancement. If Russia deploys missile systems that violate the INF Treaty, we must avoid being caught flat-footed with no military response.

Russia would likely prefer that the United States withdraw from the treaty so that Russia could get out from under the treaty’s constraints. By its actions, Russia has demonstrated that it finds more value in violating the INF Treaty than in adhering to it. The United States must create incentives that encourage the opposite behavior.

U.S. policy should encourage Russia to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty; but also prepare for a world in which the INF Treaty no longer exists due to Russian abrogation. This policy could include a combination of linking U.S. actions on other arms control treaties to Russian compliance with the INF Treaty and fulfilling legal requirements that the secretary of defense submit plans on military response options to the Russian INF violation. We must also explain that Russia alone should pay the diplomatic and political penalty if it abandons the INF Treaty.

linking u.s. actions on other arms control treaties to inf

Russia may find more value in adhering to the INF Treaty than violating it if we linked Russian compliance to our actions on other arms control treaties.

New START: The U.S. could signal that we do not plan to extend New START when it expires in February 2021. We could begin to take steps to reverse our compliance with the treaty’s central limits if Russia does not come back into compliance with the INF Treaty.

The parties under New START must reach the treaty’s central limits by February 2018. The United States already complies with the limits pertaining to deployed warheads and delivery vehicles. When the treaty entered into force in February 2011, Russia was in compliance with the central limits, but it now exceeds the central limit for deployed warheads by approximately 250. For as long as New START has been in force, Russia has increased its deployed warhead count, while we have cut our nuclear arsenal.

Open Skies Treaty: Another option is to link actions under the Open Skies Treaty to Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty. The Open Skies Treaty is yet another arms control treaty Russia violates. It establishes a regime for unarmed observation flights over the territories of other parties. It is essentially a confidence-building measure. The confidence it engenders right now is quite low, given the substantial and systematic Russian violations of the treaty. Russia has refused U.S. access for observations over certain territories in a way not allowed under the treaty.

The Open Skies Treaty provides a process for the parties to upgrade the surveillance technology – cameras and sensors – on the planes conducting these overflights. This would allow Russia to request to upgrade to certain electro-optical sensors. Such requests must be approved, therefore affording the U.S. the option to reject them until Russia, at a minimum, comes back into compliance with the INF and Open Skies Treaties. Appropriate counterintelligence assessments must also be done on the Russian technological upgrade requests.

developing military response plans

The United States should also begin developing military responses to the Russian violation, in case Russia deploys its new missile systems. This starts with the executive branch providing information it is required by law to supply to Congress, and which the Obama administration failed to provide. Section 1243 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act directed the secretary of defense to submit a plan for the development of certain capabilities in response to the Russian INF violation:

  • Counterforce capabilities to prevent attacks from intermediate range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles;
  • Countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. and allied forces;
  • Active defenses to defend against intermediate range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and
  • Other options considered useful to encourage Russia to return to full compliance with the INF Treaty or necessary to respond to Russian failure to do so.

The act went on to direct the secretary of defense to use RDT&E funds to carry out the development of these capabilities as recommended by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The conference report accompanying the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization act called the Obama administration’s submission “insufficient,” saying it “failed to address adequately the military response options.” Section 1231 of the NDAA act directed the executive to try again. 

“Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” – Barack Obama, April 5, 2009

In testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee on February 9, 2017, Gen. Breedlove said he supported a plan to “deploy active defense, counterforce capabilities and then countervailing strike capabilities as a stepping stone to try to pressure on the INF.” He lamented that “we just haven’t started down [this] path.”

reaffirm commitment to nuclear modernization

In order to secure Senate consent for the New START arms control treaty with Russia, President Obama made a commitment to modernizing the nuclear triad and our nuclear infrastructure complex. Section 1664(b) of the fiscal year 2016 defense authorization act reaffirmed U.S. policy to operate, sustain, and modernize or replace the nuclear triad; and achieve a modern and responsive nuclear infrastructure. There are programs in place to carry out the promise to modernize the triad. Confronting Russia’s INF Treaty violation should include reaffirmation of the country’s commitment to this modernization plan.

When Ashton Carter was deputy secretary of defense, he addressed the continual suggestions that the nuclear modernization plan is unaffordable and the source of budgetary woes. He said in July 2013: “nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much. ... They’re not the answer to our budget problem. They’re just not that expensive.”

He also said in September 2016, as secretary of defense: “America’s nuclear deterrence is the bedrock of our security, and the highest priority mission of the Department of Defense.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed this position during his confirmation process, saying, “U.S. nuclear weapons are fundamental to our nation’s security.”

Secretary Mattis has outlined the process for submitting the department’s request for a fiscal year 2017 budget amendment, along with the fiscal year 2018 budget request. This could provide a forum for reaffirming our nuclear modernization commitment, which is at the very foundation of our security. As he said during his confirmation process, “we must continue with current nuclear modernization plans for all three legs of the triad.”