Arms Control at its Worst

On Monday, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Originally signed during the waning days of the Cold War, the treaty placated both the Soviet Union, which was eager to restore tactical nuclear superiority on the Eurasian landmass, and the Western European allies, who preferred that any NATO-Soviet war quickly escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, which would exhaust the main belligerents but leave Europe itself intact [in theory, at least]. The United States, however, ended up sacrificing a valuable class of weapons (such as Pershing II) that gave it a measure of tactical nuclear parity with Soviet forces. The accusation stems from Russian testing of two different systems, beginning in 2007. The first is the RS-26, an authorized ICBM, but Russia has been testing it at intermediate ranges, a circumvention of the INF Treaty. The second is the R-500 cruise missile, which can be deployed from existing Iskander launchers. There is evidence that the latter system has already been deployed, menacingly, opposite the Baltics.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

On the face of it, Monday’s accusation seems appropriate, given the clear evidence of violation and Russia’s current belligerence over Ukraine. Obviously, the Russians disagree:

The statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Washington of airing old grievances and using ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to try to score political points during the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the Russian statement is closer to the truth on this issue. Take another look at the timing: evidence of prohibited testing has existed since 2008, and the White House was facing Congressional criticism for inaction as far back as 2012. And yet, only now, after Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign Ukrainian territory, sponsored an insurgency that has torn apart eastern Ukraine, made predatory glances toward the Baltics, and been complicit in the destruction of a civilian airliner, does the Administration bother making an official report of a treaty infraction. The problem is not that the accusation is false or unwarranted, but that, just as the Russians suggested, the Obama Administration considers it just another arrow in a weak quiver of diplomatic sanctions against Russia. Presumably, the US is willing to drop the issue – along with the other sanctions – when Putin scales back his involvement in eastern Ukraine. If the US was serious about enforcing arms control treaties, it would have reported the infraction years ago, when conclusive intelligence on the testing became available. Apparently, it avoided doing so to maintain the possibility of future agreements; it’s hard to sell Congress on a new arms control treaty when the current ones are being violated. Far too often in American history, arms control has been pursued not as a legitimate objective of national security, but as a legacy project for the incumbent President. The more agreements signed, the higher his place in the cosmic pantheon of peacemakers. When combined with the operative motto of most Western arms controllers – “a bad agreement is better than no agreement” – this ambition has left America with a long list of disadvantageous treaties, including INF, that have unnecessarily weakened its strategic position. It is extremely unlikely that Russian will return to compliance with INF. China and India are not party to the treaty. By acceding to the agreement in this strategic environment, the US is piously martyring itself before the altar of the False Trinity: arms control, disarmament and world peace. A more sensible course of action is a strategic reassessment concerning the role of the INF Treaty in US national security. Ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges are very relevant to the US position in east Asia: an offshore balancer attempting to deter China from a handful of small island bases.

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