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Impasse Over U.S.-Russia Nuclear Treaty Hardens As Washington Threatens 'Countermeasures'

"We don't make determinations on arms-control violations lightly," U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said.
"We don't make determinations on arms-control violations lightly," U.S. Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said.

WASHINGTON -- Russia risks provoking "military and economic countermeasures" if it continues to stonewall over a U.S. accusation that it violated a bedrock of nuclear arms control, the United States' lead arms-control negotiator says.

The comments by Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, highlight the seriousness that the U.S. administration has attached to the alleged violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Last year Washington formally accused Moscow of being "in violation of its obligations."

Gottemoeller told RFE/RL in an interview that Russia had been engaged in a "fishing expedition" to learn "what precisely we know and how we obtained that information" instead of trying to resolve the dispute.

"We don't make determinations on arms-control violations lightly," Gottemoeller said. "So I want to make clear that this violation is not a technicality or a mistake as some have suggested. We are talking about a missile that has been flight-tested as a ground-launched cruise-missile system to these ranges that are banned under this treaty."

Russia has denied the accusation, and in turn said Washington was at fault for missile-defense projects in Eastern Europe.

The INF treaty, the first to outlaw an entire category of already-deployed weaponry and allow for physical on-site inspections, is considered by many historians as a pivotal event in European security and arguably the life of the Soviet Union.

Its fraying comes with relations between Russia and the West at post-Cold War lows, marked by tensions over Moscow's forcible annexation of Crimea and other actions in Ukraine and U.S. concern at apparent efforts by Russia to strengthen its foothold in Syria. Russia has also raised the profile of its military activities in and around Europe, while the United States has announced the deployment of advanced fighter jets and heavy weaponry to Central and Eastern Europe.

No Will To Confront Moscow?

Like many agreements, the INF treaty spells out a dispute-resolution procedure, called the Special Verification Commission (SVC).

But since Washington first formally leveled its accusations, there has been no meeting of the commission; the last time it convened was October 2003. More perplexing, or even worrisome in the eyes of many experts, some with long government experience, is that there has been no effort to convene it.

"The United States isn't making a huge issue about it because it doesn't know what to do about it," says James Acton, a physicist and head of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The willingness to go toe to toe with the Russians seems like something the White House doesn't want to do," says Thomas Karako, a former staff member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Russians don't think we're serious. They think they're going to get away with it."

Long-Running Concerns

The way the U.S. administration sees it, there is little doubt about the facts.

"Despite providing the Russian government with extensive points on these matters, it's more than enough information in our view for the Russian government to pinpoint the missile system of concern," Gottemoeller said. "The Russian Federation repeatedly asks for additional information. In our view, they're seeking to find out what precisely we know and how we obtained that information. It's a fishing expedition."

The 1987 agreement, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, eliminated an entire class of missiles: nearly 2,700 intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, the majority of them Russian. It also was the first to allow for intrusive on-site inspections.

The deal did not concern sea- or air-launched intermediate-range missiles.

According to two arms control experts, U.S. intelligence began detecting what the administration says were indications of treaty violations as far as back as 2010, and possibly earlier, and began raising the issue with Moscow in 2013, quietly, but at high levels.

U.S. officials also began briefing some European allies, though it was the annual U.S. compliance report published in July 2014 that set off alarm bells in many European capitals.

In the report, the State Department said Russia was in violation of its obligations "not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles." This year's report repeated the same language.

Those ranges essentially cover the entire European continent, and much of Russia west of the Ural Mountains.

"What's important is that Russia doesn't pursue an INF-prohibited missile and we don't give them an opening or excuse to do so," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington advocacy group.

Among analysts outside of government, there is disagreement about the type of weapon the United States has identified as being in violation. The U.S. administration has released no data publicly to back up its allegations, and the Russians have rejected the data provided to them as unconvincing.

Moscow, meanwhile, has accused Washington itself of being in violation of the treaty by utilizing advanced Aegis radar systems and ship-based Mark 41 launch systems that, according to Moscow, could be used as part of missile systems banned by the INF.

U.S. officials have raised the issue repeatedly since May 2013, including "senior-level discussions" in Moscow in September 2014, according to congressional testimony from Brian McKeon, a senior Pentagon policy official.

Gottemoeller said the dispute had been discussed by the two countries' top diplomats and others. She declined to confirm that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had also discussed the issue.

"It's a little strange because when you make such a strong allegation in public internationally, you should have something to show for it," says Hans Kristensen, who runs the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington research group.

Many experts accept the U.S. position that the violation concerns a new weapon altogether: a ground-launched cruise missile.

"If there was some real ambiguity, [the Americans] would have kept it quiet, dealt with it through back channels," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "They don't want the treaty to break down, but they saw a violation they thought they had to raise."

A New Weapon?

Among those with alternative theories is Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based researcher and widely read arms-control blogger. He speculated that the weapon in question may be a submarine-launched cruise missile that was tested at a ground facility -- which is allowable under the INF -- but tested using a mobile launcher -- which may violate the agreement.

"It's in the interest of the U.S. to release more information on the alleged violations," Podvig says. "Release something to show that we are on the verge of the massive Russian deployment, which is possible but unlikely."

"If it were a dedicated, ground-launched cruise missile, then the question is: 'So what? What comes next?'" Kristensen says. "If you have to call the Russians on it, you can't go around saying: 'You cheated. We don't want to play with you anymore.'"

"They're forced to continue with this effort, to get Russia to return to compliance to the treaty," he adds.

Another theory that has gained traction is that the weapon in question is the RS-26, or Rubezh, a longer-range ballistic missile, which would fall under the New START treaty. Some experts believe the Russians may be planning to deploy the Rubezh for intermediate ranges, and that is what U.S. intelligence has focused on. Russian news reports said U.S. inspectors have been invited to visit the Votinsk test site east of Moscow this fall to view the missile.

But the missile in question was not the RS-26, Gottemoeller said, nor another that analysts have focused on: the R-500 cruise missile, which uses a modified launch system called the Iskander-K.

"At issue is a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500-5,500 kilometers," Gottemoeller said. "We are confident that the Russian government is aware of the missile to which we are referring."

The SVC, spelled out in the treaty, is the technical commission of scientists and experts that meets to hash out these exact concerns. But there's been no move -- by either Washington or Moscow -- to convene the commission.

The reason, Gottemoeller suggested, is that it would be pointless. "When one side categorically denies the very existence of a ground-launched cruise missile that violates the treaty, then there's little prospect that an SVC request [would] result in a desired outcome," she said.

But just convening the verification commission would serve its own purpose, argues Thomas Moore, a former longtime staffer of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.

No matter how little might be accomplished in such a commission meeting, he says, at least "afterward you can you can go out and say, 'Russia has refused to acknowledge the violation. The U.S. is going take countermeasures. Thank you very much.' That'll get people's attention."

Now What?

The INF dispute is one more symptom of the growing acrimony between Washington and Moscow. Russia has sent fighters, bombers, and submarines farther afield and in closer proximity to NATO countries than it used to. Meanwhile, the United States has deployed advanced F-22 fighters to Eastern Europe and is moving to position tanks and other heavy weaponry in the Baltics and nearby countries.

"What's important is that Russia doesn't pursue an INF-prohibited missile," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington advocacy group, "and we don't give them an opening or excuse to do so."

A Pentagon report detailing possible U.S. responses to Russia's position that was leaked to the AP was said to have been considering several options, including "weapons the U.S. could develop and deploy if freed from INF treaty constraints." Some members of Congress have called on the White House to release the full report.

Gottemoeller declined to detail specific responses under consideration. "We are also pursuing the potential for military as well as economic countermeasures, and I think it's important to emphasize both the diplomacy and also the potential for countermeasures," Gottemoeller said.

"In other words, should the Russians proceed to deploy these systems in a way that would in any way affect the security of the United States or our allies, we do not want them to be under the impression that they would derive any military benefit from that deployment," she said. "We must be ready with judicious countermeasures should that become necessary."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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