A top State Department official on Thursday said she is not optimistic Russia will return to compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by the Feb. 2 deadline set by the Trump administration before the United States moves to exit the agreement.
Following another unsuccessful round of discussions with Russian counterparts in Geneva last week, Andrea Thompson, under secretary of state for arms control and international security, told reporters at a Defense Writer’s Group breakfast that she does not expect Russia to change its inadequate proposals to verify new weapon systems in violation of the treaty.
The 1987 INF Treaty prohibits the U.S. and Russia from developing ground-based conventional or nuclear-armed missiles capable of range between 500 and 5,500 km as well as their launchers and associated support structures. This was the first treaty in which the countries agreed to reduce their nuclear weapons stockpile, eliminated a whole category of weapons, and used extensive on-site inspections for verification.
The Obama administration first accused Russia of violating the treaty by developing, testing, and fielding systems like the Novatar 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile and Iskander. In October President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the agreement (Defense Daily, Oct. 22). Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said unless Moscow gave up the noncompliant weapon within 60 days, by Feb. 2, the U.S. will stop complying with the treaty and start to fully withdraw from the treaty (Defense Daily, Dec. 4).
In Geneva, Thompson and her team met with Russia’s deputy foreign ministry and her counterpart Sergei Ryabkov to seek a solution that would get Russia back into compliance.
“If Russia isn’t in compliance by Feb. 2, not reconciling the material breach, and the secretary’s been clear that if they don’t get back into compliance, we’ll suspend our obligations and then the six-month clock starts ticking.”
The withdrawal procedure entails a six-month wait time until the U.S. will be full withdrawn from the treaty, making Aug. 2 the day it no longer applies.
When asked what she thinks the chances are that Russia would re-enter compliance after several rounds of talks with no result, Thompson said that if the past is any indication, “the patterns analysis would tell you that is probably not going to change.”
Thompson said the latest set of talks was a professional dialogue and “wasn’t the normal bluster, propaganda, the kind of dramatics that associate some of these meetings. The deputy foreign minister did have the right people in the room.”
However, “we did not break any new ground, there was no new information, the Russians acknowledged having the system, but continued to say their talking points that it didn’t violate the INF treaty, despite us showing them repeated times the intelligence and information, to include the dates of when the tests occurred in violation of the treaty,” Thompson continued.
On Wednesday, Russia displayed the Novatar 9M729 for media and foreign officials and claimed it can only reach 480 km, but Thompson said that kind of static display is not nearly good enough. She compared it to telling how far a car can go by just looking at it. You would only know how fast it goes if you were in the car and part of a test.
When asked what would satisfy U.S. demands absent destroying the system, Thompson said U.S. observers at a missile firing is not enough. Without proper verification for similar options Russia has offered, “they would have controlled the environment, you select the missile and you select the fuel and if you control all those parameters, characteristics, you’re controlling the outcomes of the test.”
Given the U.S. view that Russian transparency measures are unverifiable, Thompson said she told the Russians that “the only way you can get the system back into compliance is to destroy the system, destroy the missile. There’s no way to alter it, there’s no way to change it, there’s no way to adjust the fuel cycle and we’ve laid that out to them repeated times.”
The treaty holds that if a missile is out of compliance, the launcher is out of compliance. In this case, the 9M729 uses the Iskander launcher, which means to re-enter compliance by destroying the capability, Russia would also have to destroy the Iskander launcher. Russia uses the Iskander launcher to field various short-range ballistic missiles.
Thompson blamed the likely failure of the INF Treaty squarely on Russia, arguing the 9M729 did not come from overzealous developers, but its decisions are made up the chain of command to move into experimentation and then deployment of an INF-violating weapon. She said Russia now has three battalions that field the violating weapons.
The under secretary framed the likely American withdrawal from the INF Treaty as trying to maintain arms control standards.
“That underscores the foundation of arms control. And when you violate those standards there needs to be consequences. And that is an example to Russia and it is an example to all other treaty partners that you need to abide by the treaty, you need to abide by the standards, and there will be consequences when you violate,” Thompson said.
If the U.S. continued to allow the violation that is “accepting a new norm and setting a precedent for future treaties. I’ll sign a treaty with you, but go ahead and violate it, there’s no consequences.”
Thompson underscored the U.S. has not yet talked to its European allies on deploying INF-range weapons on their territory once the U.S. leaves the treaty.
“Those discussions absolutely have not occurred, again because we’re working to get Russia back into compliance. My goal is to get Russia back into compliance and preserve the INF treaty,” she said. “None of those discussions have occurred on basing of systems and where the systems, what type of systems – I’ve had no discussions on that.”
The last chance to save the treaty appears to be an upcoming P5 nuclear powers in Beijing, China next week. Thompson said they are working on scheduling a bilateral discussion with Russia on the sidelines because she and Ryabkov will both be there.
She also noted after the U.S. suspends its obligations and moves toward treaty withdrawal, the six-month process is reversible.