Russia has issued a serious challenge to the US by deploying nuclear-capable cruise missiles that could pose a threat to western Europe, The New York Times reports.
Jeffrey Lewis, the founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk, told Business Insider in an interview that the missiles were likely 9M729s, a ground-based adaptation of Russia’s Kalibr missiles that famously debuted by striking targets in Syria, nearly 1,000 miles away, from the Caspian Sea.
Officials say the missiles violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, because they have a range of 620 to 3,420 miles and fire from ground-based launchers, enabling Russia to hit European capitals from its homeland.
“We knew it was coming for a long time,” Lewis said of the missiles. Russia “started testing in 2008. In 2011, the Obama administration decided it was a compliance problem.”
The treaty between the US and Russia represents one of the few successful arms-control achievements in the two superpowers’ fraught relationship. In the 1980s, Russia began developing nuclear missiles of an intermediate range that could strike targets in western Europe.
By 2014, President Barack Obama concluded that Russia had violated the INF. Lewis said that last year at an INF special verification meeting, the US confronted Russia with evidence of its violation, to which the Russians responded with “capricious arguments” that the US had also violated the treaty.
“None of the Russian accusations amount to the US, in secret, deploying a large number of missiles that violate the treaty,” Lewis said. “The US does not have ground-launched intermediate-range forces anywhere.”
Even though both the US and Russia have intercontinental ballistic missiles that can travel around the world, intermediate-range missiles pose significant and destabilizing risks.
“With ICBMs, you can do things to reduce the range, but they’re not optimal,” Lewis said. “There’s a reason militaries want optimized range.”
In response to Russia building missiles that seem custom-made to strike NATO capitals like Paris or London, the US and NATO pursued a two-track approach, with each developing intermediate-range arms to target Moscow from western Europe and pushing for arms-control agreements with Russia.
“US cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that could reach Moscow in minutes terrified the Russians,” Lewis said.
Eventually, Russia and the US agreed to stop developing and deploying intermediate-range weapons to halt the nuclear militarization of Europe. By May 1991, almost 2,700 weapons had been dismantled.
But now the US faces a “compliance nightmare,” according to Lewis, because the missiles that violate the INF belong to a family of missiles made by Russia, some of which do not violate the treaty.
“You’re not going to be able to shut down their production facilities, because you’d have to shut down all of their facilities,” said Lewis. And if Russia is deploying the missiles with battalions that have other missiles, then the other missiles become violations by extension.
Without the INF, the US could consider placing nuclear weapons across Europe to counter Moscow’s nuclear threat.
Lewis said the US needs to revisit the two-track solution to countering Russia, but with conventional, not nuclear, arms. The US should “start a lot of programs to scare the hell out of the Russians” while also pushing for treaty compliance, he said.
“We need to remind Russians why they wanted this treaty in the first place,” said Lewis.
“We wanted the treaty because we didn’t want” the Russian intermediate-range missile systems, he added. “But can you imagine the horrifying things we can put in Poland?”