12/30/2014 12:05 pm ET Updated Mar 01, 2015

The INF Treaty and the Crisis In US-Russia Relations

Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

The public acknowledgment by the Obama administration that Moscow has indeed violated the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty comes amidst a serious deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations primarily related to the Russian annexation of Crimea and continuing intervention in Ukraine. While a premeditated violation of the INF Treaty would be a serious diplomatic transgression, it is unwise to exaggerate the strategic implications of a formal breach and engage in knee-jerk policy formulation that would do little to punish Russia and could instead actually undermine U.S. security interests in the long-term.

The INF Treaty was signed by President Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington, DC in 1987. It was a watershed agreement, as it eliminated an entire class of weapon system -- land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, whether conventionally -- or nuclear-armed, of ranges between 500-5500 km -- from the arsenals of both superpowers. The removal of the formidable Soviet SS-20 and the U.S. Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) from Europe transformed the continent's security environment and set the stage for the end of the Cold War, the re-unification of Germany, and European integration and expansion.

Russia's alleged violations focus on two programs: the first is a ballistic missile that Moscow claims as one capable of longer (intercontinental) ranges, and the second is a land-based cruise missile (the R-500) that is believed to be of the proscribed INF ranges. The former would represent a technical but less important violation, while the latter would be a formal and truly meaningful breach of the INF Treaty. From the time of its signing, U.S. and NATO analysts expected that a portion of Russia's strategic arsenal would target Europe. But the presence of a nuclear-armed intermediate-range cruise missile, deployed in sufficient numbers, dispersed to avoid detection and targeting Central and Western European capitals, would indeed represent a fundamental change in the nature of the existing security environment. Surely, if Russia possessed these missiles in large quantities today, the current crisis would be much more intense and dangerous.

The question turns to how the United States should respond to Russia's violation. For its part, the Obama administration has taken a measured approach, arguing that it prefers that Russia return to compliance and come clean on the questionable missile programs. Potential military countermeasures have also been discussed, mostly focused on offsetting the perceived military value of the Russian missiles through expansion of missile defenses and variety of alternative offensive programs. During a time of tense relations with Russia, it is important to take a firm stance and reassure NATO allies without contributing to a further deterioration of diplomatic relations to the point where a military conflict in Europe emerges as a possibility. The Russian violation of the INF Treaty should be viewed through these critical lenses first, and compliance to the Treaty should be considered in any longer-term resolution of the crisis in U.S.-Russia relations.

However, some American defense experts, who view a new generation of conventional U.S. IRBMs deployed throughout the Western Pacific as an optimal response to China's missile-focused military modernization program, argue that Washington should essentially use the excuse of Russia's violation to exit the INF Treaty and begin a crash program on its own new missiles. They argue that confronting China with an "in kind" response to its growing missile force is the best way to deter Chinese provocations and maintain U.S. capacity to project power in the region.

For both strategic and budgetary reasons, this approach is short-sighted and may actually undermine U.S. security interests. In short, U.S. missiles are unlikely to alter Chinese modernization plans or behavior, may increase the likelihood of inadvertent escalation in the event of a crisis, and (perhaps most importantly) will place allies in the uncomfortable and exceedingly difficult position of hosting highly threatening missiles directed at China that will likely make them targets on the first day of a future conflict. The notion of launching a crash multi-billion dollar IRBM program, which will need far greater range, payload, and accuracy than the Pershing II, thirty years after the last one was developed, also seems extremely cost-ineffective in the current austere budgetary environment and would likely constrain the development of more useful programs like long-range bombers and submarines by the Pentagon.

Rather than rush to implement some half-baked, poorly-conceived attempt to launch an expensive missile program geared to address (and limited to) concerns about China, the United States should remain focused on the larger question of managing U.S. Russian relations. If the history of the "Euro- missile crisis" is any indicator, it seems safe to say that the announcement of a new U.S. IRBM program for deployment in Europe in response to Russia's INF Treaty violations would exacerbate Russian and European fears and make a very difficult situation even worse.

Russia's continuing intervention in Ukraine and persistently aggressive diplomacy toward Europe has seemingly only served to isolate Moscow from much of the international community. With economic sanctions taking their toll and a significant decline in world oil prices, Russia's economic clout seems to be shrinking rapidly as well. The breach of INF Treaty will only serve to further underscore Russia's bad faith and further isolate the Putin regime, which seems more erratic and desperate every day. Rather than overreact and potentially reinforce Putin's declining position (particularly among tentative European and Russian domestic political audiences) the INF Treaty violation should be added to the litany of Russian diplomatic errors and leveraged to bring Russia back into compliance with the Treaty and to push Moscow toward the negotiation of a comprehensive settlement of the Ukraine crisis.