A Renewed Nuclear Arms Race Between Russia and US Begins to Gather Pace
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor
The Jamestown Foundation
A last-ditch attempt by Russia and the United States to salvage the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty at a consultation meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 15, ended in mutual acrimony. Washington has accused Moscow of deploying a modified Iskander land-mobile missile launcher fitted with a 9М729 (NATO designation: SSC-8) long-range cruise missile, in blatant violation of the INF. Moscow has adamantly denied any wrongdoing, since the 9М729 allegedly has not been test-fired at ranges longer than 500 kilometers. In turn, Russia has lobbed multiple accusations at the United States: First, the US has allegedly been violating the INF by using dummy rockets with properties similar to Iranian or Korean middle-range missiles to test its ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors. Second, the US has been deploying long-range attack drones, which, the Russians argue, should be classified as “missiles” under the treaty. And third, it has been building batteries of SM-3 Aegis Ashore BMD interceptors in Poland and Romania using standard МK-41 launch tubes; on US warships, the MK-41 tubes are also used to launch different types of offensive projectiles, including Tomahawk cruise missiles (see EDM, December 6, 2018).
In Geneva, on January 15, the Russian delegation apparently offered to allow the US to inspect the 9М729 missiles in exchange for an inspection of US Aegis Ashore batteries in Poland and Romania. But Washington demands the verified destruction of the 9М729 missiles and launchers. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who led the Russian delegation in Geneva, denounced the US demands as an “unacceptable ultimatum,” while Washington announced the Russian inspection proposals fell short of verified INF compliance. The gap between the two sides looks unbreachable for now. Last October, President Donald Trump announced the US would abandon the INF because of Russian noncompliance. And last December, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announced the US “will suspend its obligations [under INF] in 60 days unless Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance.” This grace period ends on February 2 (Interfax, January 16, 2019).
Since 2007, Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly denounced the INF Treaty as unfair and “one-sided” (see EDM, October 25, 2018). Russia has developed land-based, long-range, nuclear-capable, precision-guided cruise missiles (the 9М729 and possible modifications) it could rapidly and relatively cheaply deploy, if the INF Treaty goes defunct—although some production issues are possible (see EDM, November 7, 2018). The Pentagon, on the other hand, apparently lacks any ready-for-deployment delivery systems currently forbidden by the INF. Ryabkov, Putin and other Russian officials have called for further consultations, but efforts to salvage the INF seem halfhearted at best. Moscow’s initiatives look to be mostly a PR move aimed primarily at European countries, which could be the main losers if the treaty is scrapped and intermediate-range land-based missiles are reintroduced on the continent. In the 1980s when Russian and US intermediate-range nuclear missiles were massively deployed in Europe, Moscow supported a massive anti-American and anti-missile “peace movement” in NATO countries as a Cold War precursor to the present-day Russian “hybrid war” efforts. Projecting blame for the INF collapse on Washington seems to be an important objective of current Russian policy. As the Pompeo-announced February 2, deadline approaches, Moscow is doubling its propaganda efforts. On January 18, a briefing for foreign ambassadors will be organized in Moscow to affirm the narrative of Russian compliance with the INF while emphasizing alleged US guilt (Kommersant, January 17, 2019).
General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin, today a well-known strategic- and intermediate-range nuclear missile expert, had advised the Soviet military/political leadership and then-president Mikhail Gorbachev during the negotiations that led to the INF and START-1 arms control treaties, which ended the Cold War and facilitated the scrapping of thousands of nuclear missiles and warheads in an unprecedented disarmament drive. Dvorkin helped negotiate the removal from Europe of US Pershing-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles and Tomahawk land-based nuclear cruise missiles. The Pershing-2s were most dreaded by the Kremlin leaders and top military brass because of their brief—several minutes—flying time from Germany and the deadly accuracy of their maneuverable, self-guided warheads. Moscow feared the Pershing-2 warheads could kill the Soviet military/political leadership in a co-called decapitation strike before these authorities could evacuate the capital in case of war. Dvorkin previously denounced attacks on the validity of the INF; but after the latest Geneva consultations, he has acknowledged, “There are practically no chances left to salvage the INF.” The US does not believe Russian assurances, but according to Dvorkin, no one will rush to deploy new missiles as the INF becomes defunct. Russia may threaten to deploy “adequate measures,” but should not act first so as to not destabilize the situation in Europe, while the US does not actually need new land-based missiles (Militarynews.ru, January 17, 2019).
Russian officials, from Putin on down, continue to say they want to avoid a costly arms race. However, such statements do not reflect reality. According to the chairperson of the Duma defense industry commission, Vladimir Gutenev, Russia has managed to restore its Cold War–era military/industrial and scientific potential and is “today number one in electronic warfare, hypersonics and other advanced weapon systems.” In response to the US “suspension of the INF,” Russia could deploy weapons that “would surpass those scrapped in the 1980s after the signing of INF.” In particular, Gutenev mentioned the possible deployment of a land-based Kalibr-M cruise missile (Militarynews.ru, January 16, 2019). The Kalibr-M is a modernized version of the sea-based Kalibr-NK and the submarine-launched Kalibr-PL cruise missiles. It is reportedly bigger than the previously deployed Kalibr-class missiles—it carries more fuel, giving it an extended range of some 4,500 km, and it has a one-ton (two times bigger) warhead payload (TASS, January 8, 2019).
The enhanced Kalibr-M could be fitted on new bigger frigates and Yasen-class nuclear-powered attack submarines. But its mass deployment on truck launchers would be much cheaper than on ships or submarines. The Russian military would see a clear incentive to deploy such land-based weapons that would not only cover all of Europe, but also parts of Asia and North America, if deployed in the Russian Far East. Russian experts and officials have been increasingly assertive, implying that the new generation of nuclear superweapons announced by Putin has propelled Moscow into the position of a military world leader capable of imposing a new world order. Meanwhile, the Russians say, the West is mired in decay and disarray as internal squabbles and conflicts consume the US, the United Kingdom, France and others.
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Photo source: Kalibr-M land-based launcher (Source: army-news.ru) photo image uploaded in the original article by The Jamestown Foundation.