02/12/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

Did Russia Violate the INF Treaty?

On January 29, the New York Times ran a front page article reporting that the United States had notified its NATO allies that Russia may have violated the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by testing a new cruise missile. The story received little further coverage and seemed to disappear with the kickoff of the Sochi Olympics. However, this is an important story. Despite ongoing diplomatic negotiations predicated on Russian cooperation (Iran, Syria), Moscow must be pressed to answer these charges. At the same time, the exact nature of the alleged violations remain unclear, and it is essential to first confirm substantive violations before unduly damaging a critical diplomatic relationship and jeopardizing the future of a treaty that continues to support U.S. national security interests.

Signed by President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev in Washington, the INF Treaty was a watershed. For the first time, the Superpowers removed an entire class of weapons from their nuclear arsenals, scrapping existing and deployed systems, banning the development, testing and production of new systems, and instituting a novel intrusive, on-sight inspection regime to monitor compliance. It signaled a dramatic change in U.S.-Soviet relations and would mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In doing so, it enhanced the security of America's NATO allies and contributed to the stability of Europe as the continent's half century division was ended and the processes of integration commenced.

The INF Treaty remains in effect, prohibiting the United States and Russia from the development or deployment of new land-based intermediate range (500-5500 km) ballistic or cruise missiles, whether nuclear or conventionally-armed. In the interim, other states have acquired just these types of systems. Most notably China, India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and Israel possess significant inventories of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Since all of these countries can potentially target Russian territory, it is perhaps not surprising that Vladimir Putin and some Russian military leaders have questioned whether new IRBMs would be useful to enhance Russia's deterrent and influence in its periphery, thus implying that Russia should pull out of the Treaty.

In reality, Russia's long-range ("strategic") intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could be used to address any of these "theater" missions within the ranges proscribed by the INF Treaty. Moscow's grumblings about the Treaty have typically been viewed as not-so-veiled threats deployed to gain leverage against the United States and NATO in ongoing and future negotiations and reflections of lingering resentment for previous unilateral actions like America's unilateral withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under the Bush administration. It should be noted that in 2009, Russia offered a resolution in the United Nations to expand or "multilateralize" the INF Treaty to include other states. While the United States formally supported the Russian resolution, little progress was made.

Claims of Russian violations are not necessarily new. Prior tests of Russian ICBMs at shorter ranges have created a stir among hawkish members of Congress, as have tests of an advanced short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) system that may achieve extended (and prohibited) ranges. Both cases are at worst technical violations and could be remedied with greater transparency and information sharing. However, a new land-based cruise missile developed specifically for intermediate-range missions would indeed constitute a serious violation of the Treaty -- in letter and in spirit. The Obama administration should confront Moscow to get the bottom of any potential misunderstandings and determine if any concerted violations were committed. It would obviously be a major blow to U.S.-Russia relations if such a transgression took place and seriously undermine any confidence that Washington could have in future agreements with Moscow.

However, it is also critical that the United States leaders not rush to a premature judgment. Some defense experts have casually offered the idea of a U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty to develop a new generation of conventional theater missiles to address the challenge of China's expanding military power. Unfortunately, most of these experts have spent little time considering the larger implications of a "post-INF" world for U.S. security interests. While the United States may be free to develop and deploy its own missiles, ultimately a scrapping of the INF Treaty will severely complicate the security environments of key U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, reverse the progress made by U.S. and multilateral nonproliferation initiatives, and undermine American investments in missile defenses. Instead, the United States should use this opportunity to actively leverage Russia's security concerns and attempt to expand the INF Treaty to include other nations. Such a course may be difficult and require arduous long-term diplomatic efforts, but given the potential costs of losing the Treaty, it is the correct one.