The Strategy Behind Russia’s Alleged INF Treaty Breach

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On Christmas Day I played a game of chess with my 12 year-old nephew. At one stage I sacrificed my bishop so that he would move his queen into a position where it would be taken. Upon doing this, I explained to him that it is important to understand why an opponent is doing something in order to deal with it effectively. If he had known why I had moved my bishop into a vulnerable position, he surely wouldn’t have moved his queen in response. It is likely that my nephew, who is quite a good chess player, didn’t give my actions much thought and merely assumed I was making a mistake.

Like moves on a chess board, allegations regarding Russia’s breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty parallels Russia’s strategic maneuvering. 

Signed by the Soviet Union and the U.S. in 1987, the INF Treaty came into effect in 1988. Put simply, it bans any land-based missile, nuclear and conventional, with a range between 500 and 5,500km. In recent years the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the INF Treaty with the deployment of a land-based cruise missile. In November 2017 a U.S. National Security Council official declared that the missile violating the treaty is the Novator 9M729 cruise missile. The U.S. has limited the information released regarding the alleged breach, so not much is known about the 9M729 cruise missile, possibly due to the protection of intelligence sources and methods. If the 9M729 cruise missile has a range between 500 and 5,500km, it is crucial to understand why Russia would openly deploy such a system, much like my decision to move my bishop.

First, it is important to note that Russia shares land borders with 14 nations. The scale of its land mass is vast, stretching across two continents and 11 time zones. To Russia’s immediate Western flank is NATO stretching along its border. Surrounding Russia but not necessarily bordering it are nations with missiles within the INF range who are not subject to the INF Treaty. Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea all have missiles capable of striking within Russia’s borders, and all but Iran have nuclear capability. Without missiles within the INF range, Russia is severely limiting its tactical defensive capability.

China borders Russia, has the world’s second-largest economy and the world’s largest army. It has an increasingly modernized military capability and can freely deploy land-based missiles within the INF range. Russia’s only viable defense against this behemoth would be its strategic arsenal which, if used, would significantly increase escalation to possible countervalue target level, i.e., Moscow and Beijing. To assist in offsetting China’s tactical advantage, one can understand how the deployment of an INF range cruise missile would benefit Russia. There are countless scenarios, but one, in particular, would be the ability to hold Chinese ground forces at bay as they pour across the border or at least deter them from attacking in the first place.

Second, is the deployment of Ballistic Missile Defences (BMD) to Russia’s Western and Eastern flanks. In 2016 the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defence system was deployed to Romania, with Poland to follow in 2018, and in 2017 the THAAD Ballistic Missile Defence system was deployed to South Korea. These systems include the use of powerful radars designed to provide missile defense against targets within the Short to Intermediate range. The Russians claim that these U.S. BMD systems are in fact a breach of the INF Treaty as they can be converted to launch missiles within the INF range. The deployment by Russia of missiles within the INF range could be used in a tactical scenario to counter these systems and their radars. While one may claim that Russian aircraft and air-launched cruise missiles can accomplish this task, the aircraft would potentially face great difficulty in breaching air defenses. While the From the Russian perspective, they are being sandwiched between BMD defenses to their West and East and increased INF range missile proliferation to their South.

Third, is the potential use of INF range missiles as a component of a Hybrid Warfare strategy. There have been many definitions of “Hybrid Warfare” and different names for it including New Generation War.” One such definition is that it encompasses the use of a broad range of subversive instruments, many being non-military, to further national interests. These instruments may include economic pressure, propaganda, cyber-attacks, political influence and nuclear coercion to name a few. Russia has utilized a Hybrid Warfare strategy inclusive of varied instruments in the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

The deployment of INF range missiles with the capability of being fitted with nuclear warheads, whether confirmed by Russia or not, could be utilized to “divide and weaken NATO” which the RAND Corporation argues is an objective of Russia’s Hybrid Warfare strategy. These Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons with the ability to target Europe but lacking the range to hit the United States could in theory divide and weaken NATO by making the U.S. think twice before intervening in a potential conflict for fear of nuclear escalation. This strategy is reminiscent of the French decision in the 1950s to obtain a nuclear arsenal due to uncertainty about U.S. nuclear guarantees. Russia may calculate that it can invade the Baltic States under the umbrella of a nuclear INF range force without the U.S. intervening. This would be the end of NATO and could potentially further embolden Russia and other powers to use force or coercion as the concept of U.S. extended nuclear deterrence would, therefore, no longer exist.   

This is not a farfetched Russian strategy. The U.S. under President Obama stepped back from armed intervention to the point of failing to enforce a clear red line against Syria using chemical weapons. It also decided not to take military action when Russia blatantly invaded and seized Crimea from Ukraine in contravention of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, signed by the U.S. and Russia as a security assurance in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons left over from the Soviet Union.  President Trump with his America First isolationist rhetoric, criticism of NATO and suggestion that South Korea and Japan should obtain nuclear weapons also suggests a future withdrawal from global leadership. This may act to not only cast doubt in allied countries that the U.S. will come to their aid if attacked but also embolden Russia to push the envelope further.

The potential benefit of Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons over strategic arsenals, such as the nuclear triad deployed by the U.S. and Russia, is the perception that their use would not escalate into a strategic level conflict. Although ICBMs could strike a regional target within the INF range, this use of the strategic arsenal could be seen as an escalation and potentially result in a global exchange. Although this level of thinking is dangerous, as any use of nuclear weapons would potentially be difficult to limit within the region, it must be taken into account that a perception may be present in the mind of an adversary that limited use is possible with the deployment of a modernized non-strategic nuclear arsenal. 

I eventually beat my 12 year-old nephew in our Christmas Day chess game but the time will come when he will analyze my piece movements and successfully counter me. If we limit our focus on the alleged breach of the INF treaty without understanding or taking into account why Russia may breach it, we will fail to implement an effective strategy to counter any further actions. A potential consequence of this is that when and if Russia decides to withdraw from the treaty, it will already have an advanced INF range force ready to employ immediately. In our changing geopolitical environment where alliances may appear more fragile than they were previously, this could lead to miscalculation and subsequent disaster.       

Adam Cabot has a Masters in International Relations and is currently researching Russian nuclear strategy.

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