Nuclear Weapons

The INF Crisis: Bad Press and Nuclear Saber Rattling

02.26.15 | 6 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

By Hans M. Kristensen

Russian online news paper Vzglaid is carrying a story that wrongly claims that I have said a Russian flight-test of an INF missile would not be a violation of the INF Treaty as long as the missile is not in production or put into service.

That is of course wrong. I have not made such a statement, not least because it would be wrong. On the contrary, a test-launch of an INF missile would indeed be a violation of the INF Treaty, regardless of whether the missile is in production or deployed.

Meanwhile, US defense secretary Ashton Carter appears to confirm that the ground-launched cruise missile Russia allegedly test-launched in violation of the INF Treaty is a nuclear missile and threatens further escalation if it is deployed.


The error appears to have been picked up by Vzglaid (and apparently also, although I haven’t been able to find it yet) from an article that appeared in a Politico last Monday. Squeezed in between two quotes by me, the article carried the following paragraph: “And as long as Russia’s new missile is not deployed or in production, it technically has not violated the INF.” Politico did not explicitly attribute the statement to me, but Vzglaid took it one step further:

According to Hans Kristensen, a member of the Federation of American Scientists, from a technical point of view, even if the Russian side and tests a new missile, it is not a breach of the contract as long as it does not go into production and will not be put into service.

Again, I didn’t say that; nor did Politico say that I said that. Politico has since removed the paragraph from the article, which is available here.

The United States last year officially accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty by allegedly test-launching a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) to a range that violates the provisions of the treaty. Russia rejected the accusation and counter-accused the United States for violating the treaty (see also ACA’s analysis of the Russian claims).

Conventional or Nuclear GLCM?

The US government has not publicly provided details about the Russian missile, except saying that it is a GLCM, that it has been test-launched several times since 2008, and that it is not currently in production or deployed. But US officials insist they have provided enough information to the Russian government for it to know what missile they’re talking about.

US statements have so far, as far as I’m aware, not made clear whether the GLCM test-launched by Russia is conventional, nuclear, or dual-capable. It is widely assumed in the public debate that it concerns a nuclear missile, but the INF treaty bans any ground-launched missile, whether nuclear or conventional. So the alleged treaty violation could potentially concern a conventional missile.

However, in a written answer to advanced policy questions from lawmakers in preparation for his nomination hearing in February for the position of secretary of defense, Ashton Carter appeared to identify the Russian GLCM as a nuclear system:

Question: What does Russia’s INF violation suggest to you about the role of nuclear weapons in Russian national security strategy?

Carter: Russia’s INF Treaty violation is consistent with its strategy of relying on nuclear weapons to offset U.S. and NATO conventional superiority.

That explanation would imply that US/ NATO conventional superiority to some extent has triggered Russian development and test-launch of the new nuclear GLCM. China and the influence of the Russian military-industrial complex might also be factors, but Russian defense officials and strategists are generally paranoid about NATO and seem convinced it is a real and growing threat to Russia. Western officials will tell you that they would not want to invade Russia even if you paid them to do it; only a Russian attack on NATO territory or forces could potentially trigger US/NATO retaliation against Russian forces.

Possible Responses To A Nuclear GLCM?

The Obama administration is currently considering how to respond if Russia does not return to INF compliance but produces and deploys the new nuclear GLCM. Diplomacy and sanctions have priority for now, but military options are also being considered. According to Carter, they should be designed to “ensure that Russia does not gain a military advantage” from deploying an INF-prohibited system:

The range of options we should look at from the Defense Department could include active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces. U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance our responses will make them less secure than they are today.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter

What to do? Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wants to use counterforce and countervailing planning if Russia deploys its new ground-launched nuclear cruise missile.

The answer does not explicitly imply that a response would necessarily involve developing and deploying nuclear cruises missiles in Europe. Doing so would signal intent to abandon the INF Treaty but the Obama administration wants to maintain the treaty. Yet the reference to using “counterforce capabilities to prevent” GLCM attacks and “countervailing strike capability to enhance U.S. or allied forces” sound very 1980’ish.

Counterforce is a strategy that focuses on holding at risk enemy military forces. Using it to “prevent” attack implies drawing up plans to use conventional or nuclear forces to destroy the GLCM before it could be used. Current US nuclear employment strategy already is focused on counterforce capabilities and does not rely on countervalue and minimum deterrence, according to the Defense Department. Given that a GLCM would be able to strike its target within an hour (depending on range), preempting launch would require time-compressed strike planning and high readiness of forces, which would further deepen Russian paranoia about NATO intensions.

“Countervailing” was a strategy developed by the Carter administration to improve the flexibility and efficiency of nuclear forces to control and prevail in a nuclear war against the Soviet Union. The strategy was embodied in Presidential Directive-59 from July 1980. PD-59 has since been replaced by other directives but elements of it are still very much alive in today’s nuclear planning. Enhancing the countervailing strike capability of US and NATO forces would imply further improving their ability to destroy targets inside Russia, which would further deepen Russian perception of a NATO threat.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Part of Carter’s language is probably intended to scare Russian officials into concluding that the cost to Russia of deploying the GLCM would be higher than the benefits of restoring INF compliance – a 21st century version of the NATO double-track decision in 1979 that threatened deployment of INF missiles in Europe unless the Soviet Union agreed to limits on such weapons.

Back then the threat didn’t work at first. The Soviet Union rejected limitations and NATO went ahead and deployed INF missiles in Europe. Only when public concern about nuclear war triggered huge demonstrations in Europe and the United States did Soviet and US leaders agree to the INF Treaty that eliminated those weapons.

Reawakening the INF spectra in Europe would undermine security for all. Both Russia and the United States have to be in compliance with their arms control obligations, but threatening counterforce and countervailing escalation at this point may be counterproductive. Vladimir Putin does not appear to be the kind of leader that responds well to threats. And the INF issue has now become so entangled in the larger East-West crisis over Ukraine that it’s hard to see why Putin would want to be seen to back down on INF even if he agreed treaty compliance is better for Russia.

In fact, the military blustering and posturing that now preoccupy Russia and NATO could deepen the INF crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and increased air operations across Europe fuel anxiety in NATO that leads to the very military buildup and modernization Russian officials say they are so concerned about. And NATO’s increased conventional operations and deployments in Eastern NATO countries probably deepen the Russian rationale that triggered development of the new GLCM in the first place.

Will Carter’s threat work? Right now it seems like one hell of a gamble.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.