Colonel, retired, Moscow-based expert on international security issues
With the announcement of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, the issue of Russia’s response comes to the fore. First, the US decision is still to be made official. It can be reconsidered. After the formal notification there’ll be six months before the treaty is dead. Moscow is ready for talks at any level any time. The US administration is in for hard times. The opposition to the decision is strong in the Congress, with many American pundits and NATO allies expressing disagreement. Germany has already criticized the move. It’s not over yet. There is still a chance to save the landmark agreement. But if the worst happens and the INF Treaty becomes history, Russia will hardly surrender and kneel. It will respond. It has options.
With the US ground-based intermediate range missile non–existent, Russia can easily extend the range of its Iskander missile systems to cover all Europe with American military assets becoming prime targets. It can field ground-based Kalibr cruise missiles. The number of conventional and nuclear-tipped air- and sea-based cruise missiles in Europe and nearby waters can be easily increased. The Russian Navy and Air Force have acquired the capability to strike the continental USA with intermediate range missiles launching them beyond the air defense systems’ reach. This capability can be strengthened. Russian naval ships with cruise missiles on board could anchor in the countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua on a rotational basis. Long range aviation bombers could use air bases there too. Russia has never threatened the continental USA but it will have to do it. It won’t be the one who started it, after all.
As one can see, Moscow has a lot up its sleeve to respond with. It’s very important to realize that, unlike in the 1980s, Russia has the intermediate strike capability to threaten the US continent. It can strike Alaska with medium range delivery means right now. The times have changed.
The idea behind the move is to interconnect the INF Treaty with the New START Treaty to make Russia more pliant. But Russia is going through modernization of its strategic arsenal with new assets entering service while the US is still a long way to go developing, testing and introducing new systems to upgrade its potential. It will take years. By endangering the New START Treaty, the US shoots itself in the foot.
The bilateral relationship is at low ebb but it’s wrong to use arms control agreements as bargaining chips. Using the Helsinki Act terminology, sanctions, Ukraine, Syria, “election meddling” accusations should go to one “basket”, while arms control as well as the issues related to military activities should go to another. The bilateral agenda should be divided, not interconnected. Those who worked on the Helsinki Act were very professional and hard working people to be forever respected and remembered. They did accomplish the mission that seemed to be a tall order at first glance.
It’s hard to understand how dangerous an unfettered arms race is. US politicians may underestimate it. It’s true, the US has a much larger GDP but Russia’s military programs are much less costly and much more efficient. Russia gets a bigger bang for its buck. This is the reality the US has to reckon with, whether it likes it or not.
It’s more blessed to discuss the issue with professional military, especially those who are retired and free to express their opinion. Due to a lot of reasons, the issues of arms control are not seriously addressed by officials. That’s when a dialog between retired military professionals and pundits comes in handy.
The US is returning to the George W. Bush’s days when the administration tried to avoid binding treaties. The logic behind it was that any binding treaty can be breached, so why tie one’s hands? Anything can be done in good faith. But administrations come and go. Different people construe differently what has been agreed on. You cannot depend on the good will of personality. Only a binding, written agreement can guarantee the efficiency of verification procedures. And it is better to be ratified to codify the confidence building provisions agreed on.
There is one more aspect of fundamental importance. If the two leading military powers have failed to curb strategic nuclear forces’ race, there is no chance hypersonic weapons, space-based systems, long-range conventional missiles and cybersecurity warfare activities will ever be controlled. Arms race will spread to other domains.
The “races” in various domains will sap the resources. We’ve already seen that. And then we’ll have to start from scratch like our predecessors had to do. But this time there is no guarantee we’ll manage. The world has become too complicated.
One thing is evident – the arms race unleashed by the United States will not make it stronger. Remember the problem of national debt? And one more thing – the US will be forever held responsible for what’s going to happen. The history teaches that the people who control deadly weapons are wise. Those who refuse to do it are… otherwise. It’s blessed to think twice before taking the decision to dismantle what has been created with so much blood, sweat and tears than jump the gun and then pay dearly for the mistake that could have been easily avoided.