In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty — a document widely known today as simply the INF treaty. The breadth of the treaty pertained to ground-launched, medium-range missiles that could engage targets between 300 and 3,400 miles away. It was part of a broader focus on reducing nuclear stockpiles, but notably, the treaty included both nuclear and conventional medium-range platforms. It ordered both nations to destroy their current stockpiles of such weapons and barred them pursuing the development of, or conducting tests with, any such platform in the future.
Just a few years later, as the Soviet Union fell, the United States was able to maintain the treaty with the newly formed Russia as well as a few former Soviet territories turned newly born nations like Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The United States first publicly announced that they had intelligence confirming Russia’s violation of the treaty in 2014, saying that Putin’s regime had specifically violated the sections pertaining to the testing and development of such a platform. However, the American government declined to provide any more information, likely because doing so may have revealed elements of the nation’s intelligence gathering apparatus. However, in December of last year, the American government once again delivered public accusations of INF treaty violations, but this time they went so far as to call the platform out by name.
Russia’s 9M729 cruise missile (which carries the NATO designator SSC-8) is a land-based platform that experts assess to have an operational range of 310 miles to 3,400 miles. A report released by the State Department that same month wasn’t much more specific of about Russia’s violations of the treaty, but did also point out that the Russian military was no longer honoring the specifics outlined within it.
The United States has determined that in 2016, the Russian Federation (Russia) continued to be in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.”
General Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was a bit more descriptive in his statements before the House Armed Services Committee in March, saying:
We believe that the Russians have deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit and intent of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The system itself presents a risk to most of our facilities in Europe. And we believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility.”
Over the weekend, President Trump made the announcement that the United States would be formally leaving the INF Treaty; a decision that was met with a slew of headlines suggesting that Trump himself, rather than the Russian government, had decided to do away with what is being characterized as an important facet of the nuclear stability enjoyed by the world in recent decades. Although, Trump notably said that development of weapon systems that would have been in violation of this treaty won’t begin until after America’s formal departure — adding that they won’t begin at all if Russia and the United States can come to a new agreement pertaining to medium range conventional and nuclear missiles.
In that case, it seems the decision to leave the agreement is about leverage, rather than about the development of new weapons. The White House seems to think playing hardball regarding this treaty might force the Russian government to do away with their 9M729 missile program — and if it doesn’t, then honoring the treaty would have remained a one-sided endeavor after all.
And a treaty that’s only honored by one side is really no treaty at all.