Why did Russia argue that the United States should keep the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty intact and then recently declare its own suspension of the treaty? After all, it has deployed many of the very missiles banned by the treaty. Russia began the covert development of this class of missiles, probably in the mid-2000s, in a way designed to disguise its true nature. This decision has undermined over 30 years of good-faith nuclear arms control efforts and puts America, its allies and its partners at risk.
The I.N.F. Treaty, signed in 1987, prohibits the United States and Russia from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers (310 miles to 3,418 miles). The treaty eliminated an entire class of weapons and, in good faith, the United States and Russia collectively destroyed over 2,600 missiles — an accomplishment that made both our countries and the Euro-Atlantic region more stable and secure.
But just this month, the United States and its NATO allies again reaffirmed unequivocally that Russia is violating the treaty. Unless Russia returns to compliance, the United States will withdraw from the treaty effective in six months, according to the treaty’s terms.
In reality, the breakdown of the treaty started in 2007, when Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, signaled his desire to undercut the treaty in a speech at the Munich Security Conference.
Mr. Putin suggested then that Russia was rethinking the treaty, because other countries like North Korea, South Korea, India, Iran and Pakistan, as he claimed, possessed missiles banned by the treaty but were not party to it. “It is obvious that in these conditions we must think about ensuring our own security,” he said. A day later, Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, called the I.N.F. Treaty a “relic of the Cold War” that “will not last forever.” The same month, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of Russia’s General Staff, asserted that a party to the treaty could withdraw “if it provides convincing evidence that it is necessary to do so,” adding “we have such evidence at present.” That same year, Russia unsuccessfully sought a “global” I.N.F. Treaty that all countries would be party to, and submitted a formal proposal to the 2008 Conference on Disarmament.
Russian sentiment coincided with discussions held with senior Bush administration officials. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his memoir that in his first meeting with then-Minister Ivanov, the minister stated that Russia wanted to withdraw from the treaty.
Despite Russia’s feelers, starting in 2004, about scuttling its international obligations, the United States has remained committed to the I.N.F. Treaty across three presidential administrations, valuing the treaty’s contributions to international security. For over five years, in more than 30 discussions and six experts’ meetings, the United States tried without success to engage Russia in a productive dialogue on its violations of the treaty. Still, Russia continues to deny it is in violation and instead disingenuously claims that the United States is independently seeking to leave the treaty.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
What is true is this: Starting over a decade ago, and having failed to mutually end or globalize the I.N.F. Treaty, Russia decided to start covert development of a system that would violate the treaty. By now, it has developed and deployed missiles with the capacity to strike targets within the treaty’s distance limits and threaten locations in Europe and Asia.
I have seen the argument that the end of the I.N.F. Treaty is the beginning of a new arms race, and that it is better to have a treaty with Russia than nothing at all. Let me be very clear: A treaty cannot exist when one side complies and the other does not. And we are not talking about a handful of violating missiles. Russia has already fielded several battalions of 9M729 missiles.
These provocative acts undermine Euro-Atlantic security. In response, we are simply trying to defend our allies and ourselves against the threat Russia poses to all of us. Prudence and our obligations to our citizens demand that.
Over the next six months, the United States will continue to consult closely with its NATO allies to better understand the danger we collectively face, and to develop conventional, not nuclear, means to deter the use of such missiles.
NATO’s mission is to deter and defend, and to provide a security umbrella to all members of the alliance. Unlike Russia, the United States has scrupulously complied with the I.N.F. Treaty and its other international arms control obligations.
We hope that the Kremlin uses this time to come back into compliance and destroy its noncompliant 9M729 missile systems. But Russia’s leaders must understand that we will not hesitate to develop the capabilities necessary to ensure the security of ourselves and our allies.
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