Washington believes Moscow has violated the treaty by testing a new land-based cruise missile.
The United States formally accused Russia of violating a treaty designed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear-tipped missiles. The U.S. now plans to leave the treaty, which would allow it to deploy land-based long-range missiles in Asia that could be used against China.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the one who accused Russia of violating the 1987 INF Treaty, which bears the unwieldy official name “Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles.” The agreement bans the possession, production, or flight testing of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,420 miles.
When the two powers signed the deal in the ’80s, it removed a large number of nuclear-tipped missiles from Europe—missiles that could hit NATO allies and Moscow in the Soviet Union. However, the U.S. has complained for years now that Russia has tested and deployed a new long-range cruise missile in violation of the INF. Pompeo gave Russia 60 days to end its treaty violations, after which the United States would start a six-month process to leave the treaty.
The United States began making noise that Russia was in violation of the INF as early as 2014, but would not disclose the name of the missile. More recently, however, it has named the missile, known within Russia as the 9M729, or Iskander-M, and known within the U.S. intelligence community as SSC-8 or “Screwdriver.”
According to U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Russia started building the Sidewinder sometime in the mid-2000s, began testing the missile in the late 2000s, and had completed testing by 2015. “Aware of this treaty provision, Russia initially flight-tested the 9M729—a ground-based missile—to distances well over 500 kilometers (km) from a fixed launcher. Russia then tested the same missile at ranges below 500 km from a mobile launcher.”
Pompeo’s statement came after consultations with NATO allies, many of whom did not want the U.S. to leave the treaty. In late November, Dutch intelligence corroborated the U.S. report, stating, “The Netherlands can independently confirm that Russia has developed and is currently introducing a ground-based cruise weapon.”
For its part, Moscow denies violating the treaty, while insisting that the U.S. itself has violated the treaty. Russia claims that U.S. deployment of the Mk.41 missile launcher—an armored silo originally used on U.S. Navy ships to house a variety of missiles—violates the INF Treaty because it can house the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. (U.S. experts claim the silos cannot launch Tomahawk missiles without engineering changes.)
Russia also claims the U.S. has launched banned missiles as targets in anti-ballistic-missile tests. Although the missiles were possessed and launched as targets, Moscow still believes they were a violation. Finally, Moscow believes that some U.S. armed drones technically qualify as cruise missiles.
Experts believe leaving the treaty would allow the U.S. to develop intermediate-range missiles to counter China. China is not a signatory to the INF Treaty and spent decades building a powerful arsenal of medium- and intermediate-range missiles, including the DF-21 and DF-26, that, when launched from the mainland, can reach as far as Guam.
Is there any way to save the INF Treaty? That seems unlikely, but there is one reality that might force Moscow to back down. While intermediate-range nuclear missiles based in Russia can threaten bases in Europe and America’s European allies, U.S. missiles based in Western Europe can theoretically hit Moscow itself—likely within ten minutes or less. That was one major reason the Soviet Union signed the treaty in 1987: Russia has much more to lose if the INF Treaty goes away.