The State Department’s Compliance Report Plays the Blame Game, Despite Offering Little Evidence

By Matt Korda and Hans M. Kristensen

The State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance yesterday released its annual “Compliance Report,” which provides a detailed overview of US (and other countries’) adherence to various treaty and agreement commitments.

The report’s publication comes at a critical time, as the Trump administration has spent the past few years––and the past three months in particular––dismantling the last vestiges of US commitments to the international arms control regime. The administration has recently declared that it is unlikely to extend New START, has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty, has alluded to an intent to resume nuclear testing, and has announced that it will “reinterpret” the Missile Technology Control Regime in order to allow the United States to sell armed drones to previously-forbidden countries.

In addition to its intended purpose––providing the official public US assessment of how other countries adhere to arms control treaties and agreements––the administration clearly sees the Compliance Report as a tool to provide justification for shedding treaties. As such, other countries might question the report’s conclusion that the United States is in full compliance with all of its international obligations, but that other treaty parties are not.

Several sections of the Compliance Report are missing both critical context about how and why certain treaties met their eventual ends, as well as actual evidence for some of its claims about the actions of its arms control partners. To that end, we have tried to fill in some of the blanks below.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

The report assesses that throughout 2019, the United States was in full compliance with the INF Treaty––the landmark Cold War-era treaty that eliminated and banned all US and Russian ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Although this assertion appears to be technically correct and provides an extensive overview of Russian activities, it is missing some critical context. Both the United States and Russia suspended their respective obligations under the treaty in February 2019, and the treaty officially died in August 2019. Although it appeared that Russia had been violating the treaty for many years, we have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to finally kill the treaty was the wrong move, for several reasons.

Firstly, withdrawal established a false moral equivalency between the United States, who probably was not violating the treaty, and Russia, who probably was. It also put the United States in conflict with its own key policy documents like the Nuclear Posture Review and public statements made last year, which emphasized staying in the treaty while trying to bring Russia back into compliance through diplomatic, economic, and military measures. NATO preferred this approach until the Trump administration changed its mind and decided to withdraw, at which point NATO followed suit to avoid being seen to be in conflict with Washington.

The 2020 Compliance Report states that withdrawal from the INF Treaty was intended as a “remedy” for Russia’s material breach. But if the ultimate goal was to coax or coerce Russia back into compliance, then killing the treaty did the opposite. Instead, it legally freed Russia to deploy even more INF missiles on land, something the report explicitly warns that Russia might do by converting the SS-N-30a/Sagaris (Kalibr) sea-launched cruise missile into a land-based system. It also allowed the United States to explore developing INF-range missiles of its own. Only 16 days after the treaty’s collapse, the United States test launched a crudely-fashioned missile that would have certainly violated the INF treaty––if it had still existed.

New START

The 2020 Compliance Report notes that both Russia and the United States are in full compliance with the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles that each country is allowed to deploy. This is not newsworthy in itself; mutual compliance was confirmed by State and Defense Department officials during Senate testimony in 2018, after the February treaty deadline had passed.

It is bizarre that the Trump administration is using alleged Russian non-compliance with other treaties in order to undermine the one treaty with which Russia is actually complying. Moreover, unlike any other treaty mentioned in the Compliance Report, the strategic forces limited by the New START treaty are the only weapons of mass destruction that can threaten the very existence of the United States.

New START expires in less than a year, and while Russia has agreed to extend it unconditionally, the Trump administration has been dragging its feet. This should be a no-brainer: the treaty is a good deal for both parties, it offers a critical source of predictability and transparency into Russia’s nuclear forces, and extension is widely supported across the country, even among Trump voters; in fact, it’s one of the very few bipartisan issues still remaining in Congress. Senior military leaders, such as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, have declared their full support for the treaty, largely because it offers a critical source of transparency and stability in the US-Russia nuclear relationship.

Specifically, during the 2018 Senate hearing, then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs noted “The United States benefits from the Treaty’s 18 annual on-site inspections, notifications, and biannual data exchanges, which give us insight into the number of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty and where they are at any given time.” She further noted, “Should the Treaty expire, U.S. inspectors would lose their current access to Russian strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems, bases, and infrastructure, as well as the Treaty’s biannual exchange of data and associated updates on the location and status of Russia’s strategic offensive arms subject to the Treaty.” However, this fact hasn’t stopped Trump’s new arms control envoy Marshall Billingslea––an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed US ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and supported US withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty––from inexplicably arguing the opposite point. In an interview with The Washington Times last month, he claimed that “The Obama administration negotiated a very weak verification regime […] which the Russians have been exploiting.” The basis for this claim has not been substantiated by other senior administration or military officials, and is not presented in the Compliance Report itself.

Marshall Billingslea
Marshall Billingslea, the Trump administration’s Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control.

In his recent interview, Billingslea noted that a new or extended New START-style deal would necessarily have to include China. This makes no sense. The entire Chinese arsenal is thought to include about 320 warheads––a fraction of the 4,000-4,500 in the US and Russian arsenals––which is why China’s position has consistently been the same: it will not take part in trilateral arms control negotiations while this strategic imbalance remains.

Therefore, as we have previously argued in Forbes, killing New START because it doesn’t include China would do nothing to address the United States’ security concerns about Chinese nuclear forces. Instead, if limits on US and Russian strategic nuclear forces fell away and caused both countries to increase their nuclear forces, China might decide that it would need to increase its stockpile even further in order to adjust to the greater nuclear threat. This would further exacerbate a post-New START nuclear crisis.

Extension does not require Congressional approval; it simply requires a presidential stroke of a pen. Given that both countries benefit from the treaty, that both countries are in compliance, and that the United States’ NATO allies strongly favor an extension, this is a ripe piece of low-hanging fruit.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The JCPOA (commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal), is not mentioned at all in the Compliance Report. This is not necessarily surprising, as the Trump administration officially withdrew from––and then violated––the deal in 2018. However, in recent weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has argued that the United States remains a party to the deal, and therefore could demand a reimposition of sanctions on Iran if an arms embargo is not extended past October. As Senator Elizabeth Warren correctly tweeted in response, “This makes no sense.” “To extend this arms embargo,” she noted, “the Trump admin is suddenly arguing that the US is a party to the same Iran Deal it abandoned.”

Pompeo’s unconvincing argument is undermined by his own former State Department top arms control official, who noted in her 2018 Senate testimony that the United States completed its “withdrawal from the arrangement on May 8.” Additionally, if the Secretary of State truly believed that the United States was still party to the treaty, why would it be excluded from his own department’s comprehensive annual assessment of US treaty obligations?

The absence of JCPOA is even more curious because Iran’s nuclear activities are covered extensively over seven full pages in the Compliance Report.

Nuclear Testing

The Compliance Report does not assess any country’s compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) because the United States has not ratified it. The report repeats the Trump administration’s statement that it has no intentions to ratify the treaty, but nonetheless assesses that Russia and China may have conducted nuclear weapons tests that fail to meet the United States’ “zero-yield” standard. This assertion echoes the claims initially made by DIA Director Ashley during his remarks at the Hudson Institute in May 2019.

On Russia, the report states that the “United States assesses that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons-related experiments that have created nuclear yield.” But it adds in the next sentence that the “United States does not know how many, if any [emphasis added], supercritical or self-sustaining nuclear experiments Russia conducted in 2019.” A test that released nuclear energy from a canister would require Russian notification under the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTPT), which Russia has not provided. But the Compliance Report does not present any evidence but says additional information is included in a classified annex.

On China, the report is even more vague and circumstantial. It doesn’t explicitly accuse China of having conducted low-yield nuclear tests nor present evidence to that effect. Instead, the Compliance Report says a number of other activities “raise concern” about China’s adherence to the zero-yield standard of the United States and that “the United States cannot rule out the possibility that China could have conducted activities at its test site that are inconsistent with its moratorium commitment…” Details are hidden in a classified annex.

Open source analysists have not detected “any alarming activity” in this regard. Absent public evidence, both China and Russia have rejected the claims, with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister “[urging] the United States to abandon the growing practice of misinforming the global community about what is happening,” and the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson “[refusing] to dignify the groundless US allegation with a refutation.”

Claims about Chinese and Russian low-yield testing are not new, but are occasionally used by anti-arms control hawks working to hype the Russian or Chinese threat, in addition to pushing for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing. It is unfortunate that this year’s Compliance Report echoed these claims without offering any public proof to back them up, and that would-be arms control killers are subsequently using them as “evidence” of cheating.

Presidential Nuclear Initiatives

A new addition to this year’s Compliance Report is a large section (three and a half pages) on the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs). This is an oddball because the PNIs were unilateral declaration, not treaties, without any verification. Apparently, including the PNIs is part of the administration effort to make the case that Russia is cheating and therefore can’t be trusted with other treaties such as the New START treaty.

Russia is cheating on one part of the PNIs, the report says, because Russia hasn’t eliminated all nuclear warheads for Ground Forces as it promised in 1991. The report explicitly identifies the SS-21 and SS-26 short-range ballistic missiles (the SS-26 is replacing the SS-21) as dual-capable. The report does not explicitly say Russian ground-forces have retained nuclear artillery, a frequent rumor on the Internet. Curiously, the SSC-8 GLCM is not mentioned in the PNI section, even though it is a ground-launched dual-capable weapon (it is addressed in the INF section of the report).

The big picture, of course, is that Russia has fulfilled most of the PNI promises and significantly reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The Compliance Report only mentions in passing that “Russia continues to abide by some PNI pledges, such as warhead consolidation and likely the declared reduction in stockpiles…” Although Russia retains more non-strategic nuclear weapons than the United States (up to 2,000 according to the Nuclear Posture Review), that has been the case for the past three decades. Statements by US government officials indicate that Russia reduced its inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons between 2009 and 2019 by more than one-third.

One thing completely missing from the Compliance Report’s assessment of the PNI issue is that US planned production of a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile––as recommended by the Nuclear Posture Review––would be in violation of the United States’ own PNI pledge.

The Role of the Compliance Report

Violations of treaties and agreements must be addressed and resolved, which requires a persistent and professional level of engagement with other countries. Because the Trump administration is focused on abandoning treaties and reinvigorating “Great Power Competition” with Russia and China, however, the Compliance Report may increasingly be seen as a means to provide a justification for that agenda.

Even if Russia is cheating on some agreements, that doesn’t mean they will cheat on all of them, or that it is no longer worth it to retain the ones that are working. Russia has a clear interest in limiting US nuclear forces just as the United States and its allies have an interest in limiting Russian forces.

And even though China is slowly increasing its nuclear arsenal, that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily sprinting to parity. Even if the DIA’s projection that China will “at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile” over the next decade were to happen, that would still not bring the inventory anywhere near the size of the US or Russian stockpiles, which are currently estimated at 4,310 and 3,800 warheads, respectively.

Warhead Inventories 2020

There is also an expectation that if China increases its arsenal it will inevitably result in the abandonment of its no-first-use policy. In February, the head of US STRATCOM offered Senate testimony that he “could drive a truck through that no-first-use policy.” But others, such as Gregory Kulacki, have noted that China’s nuclear strategy is more restrained than what the public debate often assumes.

In sum, the annual Compliance Report should function as a way for the United States and its arms control partners to get on the same page about the status of their respective obligations and anticipate where future compliance issues might arise––not as a way to offer justifications for its own misdeeds. Otherwise, its publication may soon contribute to a breakdown in arms control altogether, rather than function as a mechanism to save it. 

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