Ambassador Vershbow Testifies Before House Committee on Armed Services on INF Withdrawal and the Future of Arms Control

US and Russian Withdrawal from the INF Treaty: Implications for the Future of Arms Control and Strategic Stability
Statement by Ambassador Alexander Vershbow
 Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces
 February 26, 2019


Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for the invitation to offer my views on the implications of the imminent demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty for the future of arms control and strategic stability with Russia. It’s an honor to be here with former Senator Richard Lugar, who has played such a fantastic and prominent role in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation since the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, and with my former State Department colleague, Paula DeSutter.

The INF Treaty had a transformational impact in ending the Cold War and stabilizing relations between the West and Moscow for more than three decades. It came about thanks to the determination and resolve show by the United States and its NATO allies when they adopted the dual track decision in 1979 in response to Soviet deployment of the SS-20 intermediate range ballistic missile and to follow two years of very intense consultations within NATO led by the United States. The deployment of US Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles restored the balance in Europe and reinforced the credibility of the US nuclear guarantee, depriving the Soviets of what the nuclear experts call “escalation dominance.”  

The NATO offer of an arms control alternative was of course initially rejected by the Soviet Union, which walked out of the talks when the first US missiles went in, in 1983 hoping to derail those deployments by fomenting popular opposition.

But NATO solidarity held, and Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev had the vision not just to limit INF, but to eliminate this entire class of systems. The dual-track decision was a powerful demonstration of how to negotiate from a position of strength. It gave impetus to talks to reduce strategic weapons andconventional armed forces in Europe.

All that progress is now at risk with the US decision to suspend its implementation of the INF Treaty and withdraw from the Treaty, together with Russia’s decision to follow suit by suspending its implementation as well. The risk is only heightened by the significant deterioration in the wider relationship between the West and Russia as a result of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and aggression against Western democracy writ large. Today’s Russian leaders may be more prepared to use their nuclear weapons coercively than were Soviet leaders in the 1970s and 1980s as part of their strategy to weaken NATO and reestablish domination over Russia’s neighbors.

The Administration’s decision to withdraw from the Treaty is legally justified, but I believe it was politically questionable. Legally, Russia is clearly in material breach of its obligations and the Administration has a certain logic in arguing that it is difficult to justify continuing to comply with a Treaty that the other side is violating.  Our NATO Allies, having seen the evidence of Russia’s violations, have supported the US decision to withdraw as a legal matter, and have not bought into Russia’s dubious counter-charges that it is the United States, not Russia, that has violated the Treaty.  

But our Allies are concerned that, politically, we may have given a gift to President Putin, who has long sought to escape the INF Treaty’s limitations, so that Russia could counter the INF missiles of countries like China and Pakistan not subject to the Treaty’s constraints. It appears, based on the saber-rattling we heard just last week from President Putin that Russia is bent on deploying additional INF systems and other new nuclear capabilities as part of his strategy of intimidating NATO and recapturing the “escalation dominance” that Russia lost when it scrapped the SS-20. Our withdrawal from the Treaty will give Russia free rein to rapidly deploy ground-launched versions of its newest cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons, in addition to the illegal 9M729.

The United States and its Allies have kept the door open to a diplomatic solution. They have made clear that, if Russia agrees to dismantle its illegal missile, the United States could reverse its decision to suspend and withdraw from the Treaty. But last-ditch negotiations have been going nowhere and it now seems inevitable that the Treaty will become a dead letter on August 2, six months after the administration gave its notice of withdrawal.  

In my view, however, we should not give up on other possible arms control solutions that could, at least, mitigate the effects of the loss of the INF Treaty.  So far, it appears that Russia’s illegal cruise missile, while capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, has only been deployed as a conventional system. The United States and NATO, for their part, have downplayed any intention to deploy new nuclear-armed missiles in Europe.  

One possible solution would be to challenge Russia to agree to a mutual renunciation of all nuclear-armed, land-based INF-range missiles (including the 9M729) and to agree to mutual inspections to verify that no nuclear-armed versions are deployed by either side. As part of this arrangement the United States and its allies could agree to Russian inspections of the US missile defense sites in Romania and Poland to confirm that they have no offensive capability as Moscow has alleged. In addition, the sides could agree on numerical limits on the permitted conventionally-armed systems.

Another solution would be for the United States and Russia to agree to refrain from deploying any land-based INF systems in or within range of Europe, while permitting some agreed number of such systems in Asia. We could even invite China to participate in such an arrangement as President Trump suggested in his State of the Union address.

A successor agreement along the above lines could help maintain stability and avert an unconstrained competition in intermediate-range systems. It could also improve the climate for negotiations for an extension or strengthening of the New Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (New START) prior to its expiration in 2021, which I would strongly favor.

Until we have exhausted the possibilities for a successor to the INF Treaty, we should proceed cautiously on the question of military countermeasures. We should review the options in close consultation with our NATO Allies, as we did in the 1970s in preparing the dual track decision, since the Allies are the ones who could literally could be caught in the crossfire of any new US-Russian missile competition in Europe.  NATO has a lot of work still to be done to strengthen its overall defense and deterrence posture in Europe. Deploying new intermediate-range, land-based missiles in Europe is not essential to these efforts and could be politically divisive within the Alliance. 

In fact, there are many existing US programs that could be adapted to negate the military advantage the Russians hope to gain with the 9M729, without developing a new intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile of our own. We could also deploy additional missile defense systems to protect key military sites against Russian cruise missile threats. 

I strongly believe NATO’s assessment of the options should focus on conventional solutions. But we and our Allies should make clear to Moscow that if Russia deploys nuclear-armed INF missiles along NATO’s borders, we do not rule out new nuclear-armed systems of our own.  We should keep the onus on Moscow for any new arms competition in Europe.  

One final point: There may be a stronger case for deploying conventionally-armed, intermediate-range missile systems (both cruise and ballistic) in the Asia-Pacific region than in Europe.  They could serve as a counter to China’s significant INF capabilities and its threat to US bases in Japan and Korea. It remains to be seen, however, whether our Japanese and Korean allies would agree to host these systems, once developed, or whether it would be more realistic to continue to rely on air- and sea-launched systems for these missions.