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Here’s what the Russians think about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from a nuclear arms treaty

- October 26, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton meet at the Kremlin on Tuesday. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Despite Russian urgings, national security adviser John Bolton is insisting that the United States will withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The treaty prohibits all short-range and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles, both nuclear and conventional, as well as systems that can be used to launch such missiles. As a result of the treaty, neither Russia nor the United States can deploy missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or 310 to 3,420 miles. Since this is a bilateral treaty, other countries are not bound by these constraints.

Since the U.S. government announced its withdrawal plans, Russian officials and experts have weighed in on what this means for Russia and how to respond. Here are five things to know.

1. Russians see the INF as giving unfair advantages to the United States

Russian experts and officials have long argued that the treaty that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed with President Ronald Reagan in 1987 was disadvantageous — first to the Soviet Union and then to Russia. Russia gave up its ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles without extracting any restrictions on U.S. sea- and air-launched missiles. That’s significant, because the vast majority of Russia’s nuclear weapons are land-based, whereas the United States bases much of its nuclear force on submarines. The Kremlin believes this has allowed the United States to dominate the world’s oceans with its Tomahawk cruise missiles, and has left Russia vulnerable to a U.S. sea-launched attack.

2. Russians believe that it is the United States that has been violating the treaty

The United States has claimed that Russia has been violating the INF since 2014, by testing and secretly deploying a ground-based variant of its sea-launched Kalibr missile. Russia has in turn claimed that the United States is in violation, doing so in two ways.

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First, the Kremlin claims that U.S. unmanned strike aircraft, such as Predators, are actually ground-launched cruise missiles — and should be subject to the treaty’s prohibitions. The United States argues that these are actually piloted aircraft — even if the pilot may not be sitting in the aircraft, but on the ground — and therefore excluded from the treaty.

The second Kremlin claim has more substance. Russia argues that the U.S. Aegis Ashore missile defense system, which is being deployed in Romania and Poland to complement naval systems designed to intercept ballistic missiles launched against the United States or its allies, uses the same launch systems as the ship-based Tomahawk cruise missiles. Since the Tomahawk missiles are intermediate-range missiles, both the missiles and their launchers are prohibited by the INF from deployment on land. Although Washington argues that the two systems differ, the Russian side can plausibly argue that it cannot be certain whether the missiles inside the launch systems are permissible defensive interceptor missiles or prohibited offensive cruise missiles.

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In fact, this uncertainty is the main reason that launcher systems for prohibited types of missiles were explicitly prohibited by the terms of the INF.

3. Withdrawal will benefit the Russian military, at least in the short term

Russian experts unanimously believe that if the United States withdraws from the treaty, Russia will benefit in the short term, as it has ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles that are much closer to being deployable than the United States’ missiles. For instance, Russia’s Rubezh ballistic missile is often considered to be an intermediate-range missile in all but name, even though it has been tested at longer ranges to evade the INF’s restrictions. This missile has not been included in Russia’s armament plans for the next decade, in part because of concerns about cost and in part because of doubts that it would actually operate at the longer ranges. Without the INF, Russia could begin producing Rubezh missiles fairly quickly.

Furthermore, without the INF, Russia could openly deploy a ground-based variant of its Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile called the 9M729, also known in the West as the SSC-8. Given Russia’s limited access to open seas and the problems its shipbuilding industry has had in recent years building large ships in a timely manner, deploying a significant force of ground-launched cruise missiles could be strategically advantageous for Russia. Such a force would enable it to deter potential aggression from both NATO and from Asian countries.

4. Russians think the primary impact will be on China, not Russia

Russians argue that if the United States withdraws from the INF, not much will change for Russia. With no intermediate-range missiles ready to deploy in Europe, the United States will probably continue to rely on its air- and sea-based cruise missiles to accomplish its military goals in the region. What’s more, the Kremlin remembers that in the 1980s, most European countries were reluctant to host U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles — and believe that will still be true now. However, that discounts the possibility that anti-Russian East European countries such as Poland might be far more willing to host such missiles than Germany.

On the other hand, Russian insiders think this U.S. move is aimed primarily at China, which is not a party to the INF and has deployed a large number of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. Russian experts have already begun discussing which East Asian countries might agree to host U.S. missiles to counter the Chinese. Some advocate waiting to see how China reacts to this U.S. announcement before deciding what Russia should do, arguing that since China is at greater risk, Russia should follow China’s lead on whether to negotiate with the United States or deploy new weapons in response.

5. So what happens next?

Russian experts disagree on what will happen next. Some think that this is the last step before nuclear arms control unravels entirely. They point to President Trump’s criticisms of various treaties that President Barack Obama signed, and to John Bolton’s well-known distaste for arms control. They predict that the United States will not only withdraw from the INF, but will also refuse to extend the 2011 New START strategic arms limitation treaty — thus eliminating the last remaining constraint on U.S. deployment of new nuclear weapons, and casting the world into a new era of strategic instability.

Others think that Trump’s and Bolton’s declarations are merely negotiating tactics — and that while the United States is certainly willing to withdraw from the treaty, it would rather renegotiate it to include China and to force Russia into a serious discussion about its violations of the agreement.

Dmitry Gorenburg is a senior research scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA and an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.