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18 January 2016

Will the INF Treaty be sacrificed?

The ban on intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles has few supporters in the Kremlin

The Treaty on the elimination of intermediate-range (1000-5500 km) and shorter-range (500-1000 km) missiles was concluded between the U.S.S.R. and the United States in 1987 and executed in 1991. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with defined ranges capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Final inspections into the compliance with the Treaty were carried out in 2001. It seemed there was no way back: Russia and the U.S. – in possession of huge arsenals of intercontinental missiles anyway – would deem intermediate-range and shorter range missiles simply unnecessary in terms of expediency, safety and predictability.

However, in the second half of the 2000’s, some in Moscow were heard saying that the INF Treaty was no longer necessary. This occurred against the backdrop of escalating anti-Western sentiments and fears regarding U.S. missile defense. It was then that Russia gave up another treaty signed at the end of the cold war – the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. And today, the future of the INF Treaty appears even more unclear.

Missile fetishism

One of the problems lies in the fact that Russia finds it very difficult to adapt to the conditions of the modern world – its political and economic rules of the game undermine development, the well-being of citizens and the preservation of anything close to a meaningful role in the world. This raises the question of power in the country and is the basis for the anti-Western policy of the Kremlin which has intensified over recent years. Generally speaking, it is precisely the West which is regarded by Moscow as the main source of threats – from missile defense to ‘color revolutions’. This is why Moscow defiantly threatens the U.S. and Europe with missiles. It builds and deploys ‘Iskander’ tactical missile systems near Kaliningrad, renews its stockpile of intercontinental missiles, speaks of plans to revive railroad-based missile systems, etc. All in all, the Russian ruling elite perceive missiles as a political and diplomatic game changer which will ensure its international status, the inviolability of assets, irreplaceability on the global stage and, consequently, irremovability within the country.

These actions can be perceived as a result of lobbying on the part of the military industrial complex, as a theatre performance or even as a kind of archaic ‘magical thinking’ whereby the very fact of missile possession should somehow solve all real problems. However, it is important to understand that, in its struggle for survival, the Russian political system has crossed the line between demonstrative use of force and its actual use, and Kremlin attempts aimed at raising the stakes will continue.

And here, the next step was taken in the fall of 2015, when Russian troops used new ‘Kalibr-NK’ cruise missiles in the Syrian campaign. It would seem that these missiles were launched from ships and, in spite of their range (up to 2000-2500 km), they are not covered by the restrictions of the INF Treaty. However, it is not that simple. 

What is the problem?

The ‘Kalibr-NK’ cruise missile is apparently an advanced, modified version of the KS-122 Soviet cruise missile of the same range which used to have its sea-launched (the S-10 ‘Granat’ system, SS-N-21) and ground-launched (the RK-55 ‘Relief’ system, SSC-X-4) versions. It was a response to the American ‘Tomahawk’ but was intended for nuclear warheads only. According to the INF Treaty, it was precisely the ground-launched version of the missile which was eliminated. With the end of the cold war, sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads have also greatly lost their relevance. This determined Russia’s interest in obtaining a modern high-precision long-range cruise missile with a conventional warhead.

The first problem was that aircraft engines for such missiles were produced only in Ukraine. Hence, work on the creation of Russia’s own engine started back in the Yeltsin era but its serial production was launched at the ‘NPO “Saturn” plant JSC’, as late as 2013.

The second problem – the necessary stockpile of missiles. From 1983-1988 the U.S.SR was able to produce 84 KS-122 ground-launched missiles and perhaps about the same number of sea-launched missiles. It is a very high figure for nuclear weapons. However, today, the production capacity of the Russian military industry is limited, and nuclear warheads are out of the question. Moreover, Russia has officially used 44 ‘Kalibr-NK’ missiles (probably, the lion’s share of the stockpile) during the two months of the Syrian campaign, but with no impressive military effect. This serves as evidence that such missiles are not the most effective and are by no means the cheapest way of combatting a mobile enemy equipped with light weapons.

High-precision long-range cruise missiles are actually designed for wars against states and regular armies. This is just what the Kremlin needs, according to its system of coordinates. In order to assess Russia’s demand for this type of weapon, one can refer to figures for the use of the American ‘Tomahawk’ cruise missile which served as a model for its Soviet/Russian counterpart. The U.S. used 288 such missiles in Iraq in 1991, 802 missiles there in 2003 and 220 missiles in Libya in 2011. Besides, America produced approximately 200 ‘Tomahawks’ a year. That is, hypothetically, Russia can produce 200-300 missiles of that kind within several years.

But there is a third problem here: the Russian navy. For decades, the priority of its development has been submarines with nuclear weapons whereas surface ships fulfilled auxiliary functions. However, both the former and the latter were perceived by the management as being akin to kamikaze.

Today, Russian ships can launch missiles reaching Syria from the safety of the Caspian Sea and remind the countries of South Caucasus and Central Asia of Moscow’s political ambitions. However, newly built submarines have become carriers of ‘Kalibr-NK’ missiles in the Black Sea for a change. In parallel, tactics for the covert movement of submarines in the seas surrounding Europe are honed.

At the same time, submarines along with the flights of strategic bombers along the borders of Europe and the U.S. can be considered a tool of psychological pressure. However, due to their susceptibility, they are not suitable for the role of the sought-after political game changer in relations between the Kremlin and the West. But this role can be fulfilled by the ground-launched variant of the widely ‘publicized’ ‘Kalibr’ missiles and another Russian ‘brand’ equipped with them – the land-based ‘Iskander’ missile system.

A bad scenario

The R-500 cruise missile was first test-fired back in 2007. It was precisely the ground-launched version of the ‘Kalibr’ missile family and the development of the KS-122 Soviet missiles that were designed for ‘Iskander’. It was back then that the former Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov (who is the head of the Russian presidential administration today) announced that Moscow was considering opting out of the INF Treaty. In 2008, President Medvedev threatened to deploy ‘Iskanders’ near Kaliningrad, should the U.S. not abandon its plans to deploy missile defense systems in Europe. The probability of Moscow opting out of the Treaty has increased significantly since then, especially with Russia becoming capable of commencing serial production of long-range cruise missiles. This is also evidenced by the growing concerns of Washington.

Bargaining with the West, imposing its own agenda and forcing it to enter into agreements have now become the main priorities of foreign policy for the Kremlin for the abovementioned reasons. And, judging by the words of recent weeks, the Russian authorities are not particularly keen on maintaining the INF Treaty, or else they overemphasize the value of this document, although it remains almost worthless to them.

Withdrawal from the Treaty, if it does take place, will serve to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. Moscow – while pointing its cruise missiles towards the European NATO members – will gain the possibility to threaten them with conventional weapons while excluding the use of nuclear deterrence mechanisms. Moreover, it will be constantly pointing to the risks of potential escalation and blaming the U.S. for everything in the hope that Europeans will give in to the pressure.

This game is used by Russia to drag the West into negotiations, during which it will most definitely put forward the following demands formulated long ago:

  • to conclude the European Security Treaty (whose draft was prepared after the war with Georgia);
  • to withdraw from the deployment of the American missile defense systems in Eastern Europe;
  • to withdraw American tactical nuclear weapons from Europe and Turkey;
  • to recognize the annexation of Crimea and special Russian interests in the post-Soviet space;
  • to lift sanctions.

Today, the Kremlin does not have too many tools to get what it wants, yet opting out of the INF Treaty is one. The main factor is concealed behind the interest in such negotiations: the desire of the Russian ruling class to obtain a guarantee of immunity which will enable it to commence the complex process of transference of power as well as control over financial flows and assets by inheritance without the threat of having to pay its way. And this problem is indeed worth blackmailing the U.S. and Europe with new missiles for. 

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