Monitoring and verifying compliance with the INF Treaty
The INF Treaty created the most intrusive monitoring and verification arrangements of any treaty in history. The withdrawal and destruction of all the missiles and nuclear warheads specifically identified in the treaty was successfully completed by 1991 and verified to the satisfaction of both parties.
Alleged Russian violations of the treaty
Since 2014, the US has been claiming that Russia was in ‘material breach’ of the INF Treaty because of a missile system claimed to be within the prohibited range of the Treaty. This has now been identified as the SSC-8, or 9M729, Russian missile system. Russia began testing this particular missile in 2008 and began deploying it in 2016. Russia claims this is a short-range missile that is within the range allowed by the INF Treaty (up to 300 miles or 500 km). The US claims it is capable of a longer range, which would put it in violation of the treaty.
Neither the US nor the Russians can flight test missiles like this without the other side monitoring the test from satellites and other methods of surveillance. It is worth noting that the US has not claimed that any of the actual Russian tests which they monitored showed this particular missile going further than the allowed range of 300 miles. What the US claims is that their experts have assessed, on the basis of the missile’s size and shape, that it ‘could’ go further if they wanted it to, and therefore be in breach of the INF Treaty. They also claim that Russia did, in fact, test this same missile on a different platform to demonstrate that it can further than 300 miles, but they have not provided any evidence of this in public and Russia continues to deny that it was the same missile that was tested to a different range.
Alleged US violations of the treaty
Russia meanwhile claims that the US is in violation of the Treaty with its deployment of Aegis Ashore missile launchers in Eastern Europe and its use of missile-launching UAVs (drones). Aegis Ashore is a missile defense system deployed to Poland and Romania. It uses the identical launch system used by the ship-based Aegis system, which was specifically designed to handle Tomahawk cruise missiles. These missiles, fired from a ship, are specifically allowed by the INF Treaty. If they were to be used on land, however, that would be a violation of the INF Treaty.
Again, the Russians are not claiming that the US is actually deploying the banned missiles on land, only that they could very quickly and easily, if they wanted to, deploy these missiles on the missile defense systems that are being deployed to eastern Europe. Both of these allegations are equally problematic, as they do not at face value involve a direct violation of the treaty and neither side has produced any evidence to prove that these systems are in fact in breach of the treaty.
A second allegation against the US, however, involves the US use of UAVs, or drones, to fly over long distances and launch missiles against specific targets. Military drones did not exist at the time of the INF Treaty, and so they are not specifically mentioned. However, the Treaty bans all ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCM) and defines these as any ‘unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift.’
The US claims that military drones do not meet this definition of a GLCM, since they are not themselves ‘missiles.’ The Russians point out, however, that these drones are nevertheless unmanned, self-propelled and fly through the air with the help of wings (as opposed to missiles which just go up and then come down again). So according to the definition in the INF Treaty, they consider them to be GLCM, a banned system.
Mechanisms for resolving disputes over alleged violations of the treaty
The proper way to address these claims and counter-claims is by going through the dispute resolution mechanism provided in the Treaty itself, not by abandoning the treaty. If there is a dispute about compliance with the terms of the treaty, the parties to the Treaty are supposed to call a meeting of the Special Verification Commission (SVC) to settle it.
The SVC stopped meeting in 2003, after the withdrawal and destruction of all the warheads and missiles specifically identified in the treaty was completed. Following the initial allegations by the US, and then allegations raised by the Russians, the Commission met in 2016 and again in 2017 to resolve these issues. However nothing of substance came from either of these meetings.
Since neither side has wanted to allow inspectors from the other side to verify the status of these particular disputed missile systems, they have been at a stalemate over these allegations. If the US were serious about its complaint against Russia, the next step would take this to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for a definitive ruling on the basis of international treaty law. The ICJ could, of course, uphold Russia’s complaint instead of, or as well as, the US complaint.
The implications of abandoning this treaty
The INF Treaty, like all other treaties, does allow for one or other party to withdraw from the treaty, but only under specific circumstances. These must be, in this case, that “extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Treaty have jeopardized its supreme interests.” In accordance with the treaty, the party wishing to withdraw must clearly state to the other party what these extraordinary events are, and how they have jeopardized its supreme interests.
In announcing the US intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Russia’s deployment of its 9M729 missile was “a threat to allied security.” He did not explain how such a missile jeopardized the supreme interests of the US, nor how the deployment of this missile could be considered an extraordinary event in the terms of the INF Treaty.
To withdraw from this treaty on such flimsy grounds is hugely detrimental, not just to the goal of limiting and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons, which this treaty has done so effectively. It is also hugely detrimental to the future of international law and the whole international system that depends on it. When one country unilaterally abrogates its solemn and legally binding commitments to another country, or countries, as laid down in a treaty like this one, it undermines the whole basis for such agreements.
Why should Russia, China, North Korea or any other country sign a treaty with the United States if they know that United States is just going to tear it up later on if they decide they don’t like it anymore? Why should anycountry sign a treaty with any other, if the most powerful country in the world does not abide by the treaties they have signed?
Withdrawing from the INF Treaty is reckless and hugely dangerous for the whole world. We can only hope that this administration is a short-term aberration that will soon replaced by a US government that returns once again to a rules based international order where countries can be counted on to keep their promises and deliver on their commitments. That cannot happen soon enough, and it may take some time to undo all the damage that has already been done. The US, and the rest of the world, will also need to think very carefully about revising and renewing international systems and structures so as to reduce the risk of this happening again. Too much more of this and we are all doomed.
Timmon Wallis, Feb 1, 2019