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Expert Urges Transparency on Alleged Russian Arms-Treaty Violations

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A Soviet intermediate-range SS-20 Saber missile on display in Kiev, Ukraine, in June 2011. An issue expert recommends that the United States publicly air its concerns about recent Russian compliance with a bilateral treaty that bans all intermediate-range missiles. A Soviet intermediate-range SS-20 Saber missile on display in Kiev, Ukraine, in June 2011. An issue expert recommends that the United States publicly air its concerns about recent Russian compliance with a bilateral treaty that bans all intermediate-range missiles. (David Holt/Flickr)

One U.S. issue expert is pushing the State Department to report openly on an alleged Russian violation of a treaty banning intermediate-range missiles.

"State should make very clear what it is the Russians have done, how Washington views that compliance, and whatever excuses the Russians are offering," Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote in a Friday analysis for Foreign Policy.

At issue are allegations that Moscow has violated -- or at least circumvented -- the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The 1987 accord prohibits the two nuclear superpowers from testing or deploying any cruise or ballistic missile with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles.

The Obama administration has privately shared with NATO nations its concerns about a potential Russian contravention of the bilateral agreement, but Washington officials to date have refrained from making a formal or detailed public accusation of a treaty violation. Substantial information about the case reportedly has been provided to Congress only in closed-door briefings. The State Department in January acknowledged discussing the matter with Russia.

The department publishes an annual compliance report assessing how nations are fulfilling their arms control commitments. While it has been 10 years since the reports last touched on the INF Treaty, Lewis argues the time has come for a renewed focus on the accord in the upcoming version. Lawmakers have yet to receive the latest iteration of the document, which was due to Congress in mid-April. Administration officials have said only that it would be delivered sometime this spring.

Washington reportedly suspects that two test-firings of a Russian RS-26 Rubezh ballistic missile in 2012 and 2013 sidestepped the treaty. While the weapon was previously tested at an intercontinental range, the more recent launches involved the missile traveling only approximately 1,240 miles -- a distance that would seem to be prohibited by the INF accord, according to Lewis.

A separate possible violation of the treaty involves Russia's testing of a new ground-based cruise missile. Ascertaining whether cruise missiles are being tested at intermediate ranges is difficult, says Lewis, as the low-flying weapons can use as much as 25 percent of their range moving laterally rather than forward in one direction.

"Range also depends on how much of the flight is spent skimming the terrain, which requires more fuel than cruising at altitude," said the nuclear weapons analyst.

The INF agreement's definition of a cruise missile's range is not very specific, according to Lewis.

"At times, it seems like this treaty was drafted with all the precision of two winos trying to work out a complex problem in astrophysics," he wrote.

In addition to calling for a public State Department report, Lewis recommended that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speak out about the matter and make it "clear that these systems are inconsistent with the treaty."

"Publicly raising the issue is important both to reassure allies, but also to get Moscow's attention," he wrote. "The Russians are clearly sensitive to the public disclosure of their activities."

Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in an April essay for Foreign Affairs suggests the Pentagon respond to the perceived INF accord transgressions by studying "whether the United States does need or would substantially benefit from INF-barred systems" -- a recommendation that Lewis found "reasonable" so long as it was confined to only conventional missiles.

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