The INF treaty sit­u­a­tion sees id­iots on both sides


THE LAST TIME I wrote about the treaty ban­ning ‘in­ter­me­di­ate-range’ nu­clear mis­siles was 31 years ago, and I re­ally thought I’d never have to visit that te­dious sub­ject again. More fool me.

John Bolton, the ide­o­log­i­cally rigid and badtem­pered man whom you send when you don’t want a ne­go­ti­a­tion to suc­ceed, has just been in Moscow to tell the Rus­sians per­son­ally that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is go­ing to tear up the In­ter­me­di­ate-Range Nu­clear Forces (INF) treaty.

That’s what you would ex­pect from the new U.S. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser and his im­pul­sive and illinformed boss, but the Rus­sians in this case are just as much to blame for cre­at­ing the provo­ca­tion in the first place. It’s one of those dis­tress­ingly fre­quent oc­ca­sions when the id­iots are in charge on both sides.

The INF Treaty, signed by Ron­ald Rea­gan and Mikhail Gor­bachev in 1987, bans land-based bal­lis­tic or cruise mis­siles with a range of be­tween 500 and 5,500 km. What the Rus­sians have ac­tu­ally done, it seems, is to take a per­fectly le­gal sea-launched cruise mis­sile, the Kal­ibr, which has a range of up to 2,500 km., and put it on a mo­bile land-based launcher.

The Kal­ibr is a quite use­ful weapon that can deliver about 500 kg of con­ven­tional ex­plo­sives or a nu­clear war­head on an en­emy, al­though it would take at least three hours to reach a tar­get 2,500 km. away. (Cruise mis­siles travel at about the same speed as air­lin­ers.)

In 2015, Rus­sia made a show of fir­ing 18 Kal­i­brs (with con­ven­tional war­heads) at Syr­ian tar­gets from ships in the Caspian Sea.

Why would the Rus­sians want to put these mis­siles on land-based launch­ers, which vi­o­lates the INF rules? The only plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion is that there are some Chi­nese tar­gets that Rus­sia can­not hit with its sea-based cruise mis­siles. (There are no U.S./ NATO tar­gets that can­not al­ready be reached by the sea-launched va­ri­ety.)

This is plau­si­ble, but it is not ra­tio­nal. Rus­sia is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of reach­ing those Chi­nese tar­gets with bal­lis­tic mis­siles, both land- and sub­marinelaunched, that would get to their tar­gets far faster than the new land-based ver­sion of the Kal­ibr cruise mis­sile, called SSC-8 by NATO.

Be­ing able to do the same thing a third, slower way hardly jus­ti­fies the po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal cost of vi­o­lat­ing the INF treaty for Rus­sia as a whole. It may nev­er­the­less ap­peal to the par­tic­u­lar branch of the Rus­sian armed forces that would con­trol that third way, for in­ter-ser­vice ri­val­ries are as sharp and stupid in Rus­sia as they are in the United States.

From a West­ern point of view, the SSC-8, while il­le­gal, does not pose any new threat. The real rea­son the INF treaty was needed three decades ago was that the Rus­sians were then in­tro­duc­ing in­ter­me­di­at­erange bal­lis­tic mis­siles, the once-fa­mous SS-20s, that could reach their tar­gets in West­ern Europe within a few min­utes of launch.

The bor­der be­tween NATO and Soviet forces was then about 500 km closer to West­ern cap­i­tals than it is now, and there were huge tank-heavy armies stacked up on ei­ther side of the so-called Iron Cur­tain. An ul­tra-fast Rus­sian strike by nu­cle­artipped SS-20s on NATO army bases and air­fields, fol­lowed im­me­di­ately by an all-out ground in­va­sion, could the­o­ret­i­cally have suc­ceeded (al­though only a fool would have chanced it).

In any case, the Rus­sians and Amer­i­cans ne­go­ti­ated in­stead, and ul­ti­mately agreed to scrap all the Soviet SS-20s and their Amer­i­can equiv­a­lents, the Per­sh­ing mis­siles. Since the U.S. had also de­ployed some land-based cruise mis­siles in Europe (the Rus­sians did not), the INF treaty also banned those. Al­most 2,700 mis­siles were de­stroyed, and the whole is­sue went away for three decades. It isn’t re­ally back now.

There are no mas­sive tank armies ready to roll in Europe any more, and the Cold War is long over.

The de­tails of the Rus­sianAmer­i­can ‘mil­i­tary bal­ance’ are of con­cern mainly to the ex­perts, many of whom make their liv­ing by dis­cov­er­ing some im­bal­ance or dis­crep­ancy that will en­able their (mil­i­tary) clients to de­mand more or newer weapons to counter the new ‘threat.’

The Rus­sians have bro­ken the rules by de­vel­op­ing and test­ing the land-based SSC-8 cruise mis­siles, but they haven’t ac­tu­ally de­ployed them in mean­ing­ful num­bers. They may never do so, be­cause it would not give them any sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic ad­van­tage.

This was the logic that led for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama to protest to the Rus­sians about the new weapon in 2014, but not to ab­ro­gate the INF Treaty. What would that gain, ex­cept to le­gal­ize what the id­iots in the Rus­sian mil­i­tary were do­ing?

Obama prob­a­bly as­sumed that the adults were still in charge in the Krem­lin, and that they were en­gaged in the same strug­gle to con­tain the ran­dom en­thu­si­asms of Rus­sian mil­i­tary plan­ners that all U.S. pres­i­dents must wage against their Pen­tagon equiv­a­lents. But the White House has a dif­fer­ent ten­ant now.

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