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Cold War Nuclear Treaties: Old and Busted or Cool Vintage?

Russia may be cheating on a treaty banning an entire class of nuclear weapons considered too destabilizing and creating too great a danger.
May 30, 2014, 6:20pm
Image via Flickr

As President Obama kicks off his foreign policy speaking tour, Congressional Republicans are unhappy with Obama on the subject. This development is seen as a shocking new twist to as many as zero people.

Fortunately for you and me, it’s particularly about something pretty interesting, a bit confusing in spots, and potentially really scary.

The bottom line is this: Russia may be cheating on a treaty that bans an entire class of nuclear weapons considered too destabilizing and creating too great a danger of nuclear war, unintentional or otherwise.

That is, considered too destabilizing and too dangerous by Reagan.

The treaty in question is colloquially known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF for short. While that might not seem terribly informal, it’s a lot better than the full title: The Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. Clearly arms control negotiators — especially the Soviet kind — aren't the go-to guys for informal and relaxed.

The INF treaty was signed in 1987, the result of more than six years of negotiations and the cause of deaths of countless trees. The gist of it is that the US and Soviet Union got rid of all missiles (of both flavors; ballistic and cruise) with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles (which is less arbitrary in metric: 500 and 5,500 km).

Europe is now (and was then) chock-full of nukes. The US keeps (or kept) 22 B-61 nuclear bombs, each with a yield of 50 kilotons, in the Netherlands, for crying out loud. I don’t care what you think Belgium might get up to and will need to be beaten down for, but 22 nuclear bombs seems to be going a bit overboard.

But at some point, everyone just up and decided one day (presumably while sitting around, polishing all their other nuclear bombs) that intermediate range nuke delivery systems were just too damned dangerous because emerging technologies had become seriously destabilizing. Specifically, things were very quickly getting to the point that the first inkling of nuclear war that any European capital (including Moscow) might get would be the expanding fireball where their city used to be.

This sort of thing makes people all kinds of nervous.

This is super bad when those very same people have their own nukes, with which they could evaporate the other guy if they could get the drop on them. And so on and so on. All of which had the effect of eroding the power of that grim peacekeeper, deterrence.

Ballistic missiles were getting more and more accurate, easier to set up and launch at a moment’s notice, easier to move around (and conceal). While the good old-fashioned ICBMs in Russia and the US take about half an hour to reach a target, European geography meant that, in some cases, a missile could hit its target about five minutes after launch. Which means that instead of having 30 minutes to wake everyone up, get them in the meeting room, and decide how to respond and what to nuke, leaders had to do all of that in less than 300 seconds. In an interview with the Moscow Times, former Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev said "This was like holding a gun to our head."

Tensions ran high throughout the Cold War, but you’re not going to keep everyone calm by switching to decaf if you and everyone you know are always, very literally, five minutes away from being incinerated.

Even worse, long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles were becoming more capable. Cruise missiles are notoriously hard to spot because they fly so close to the ground. So it’s entirely possible that the cruise missile could fly undetected all the way to its target before detonation. In that case, the national command leadership might find its warning time cut from 300 seconds to zero.

Tactical nuclear weapons were just fine with Washington and Moscow because all the exploding would pretty much be taking place in other people’s countries, but when the tactical started to become strategic, everything changed very quickly.

So, by the early 1980s Europe was on the brink of turning into an enormous, reversed version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this time with Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II intermediate-range missiles (like the ones on display at the Air and Space Museum, and shown at top). Then Reagan got a wild idea about trying to negotiate a reduction in these kinds of weapons. Instead of worrying too much about the definitions and other fussy particulars, he suggested: how about we just all go to zero? Get rid of all of these troublesome medium-range weapons and call it a day?

Six years and approximately 4.2 zillion cups of questionable coffee later, the treaty was finished, signed, ratified, registered, embossed, and underlined, and the rest is history.

Or at least, it was supposed to be. Now Russia, according to US officials, may be violating the treaty. Or at least that's what the US is telling NATO.

Russia is doing two things that are reputedly in violation of the treaty.

First, they’re deploying a new, road-mobile ballistic missile. The missile itself is fine, but the way they’re using it may not be. It has a longer maximum range than those covered by the treaty. However, Russia has carried out tests in which they added warheads to the missile and fired it at less than its maximum range, which turned it into an intermediate-range weapon.

The problem is that the INF treaty (as well as other Cold War agreements) tended to assume everything was always turned up to 10 all the time. The only concern then is ensuring that nobody can turn anything up to 11. So the INF treaty language talks about maximum ranges. Nobody said anything about dialing down performance. It completely skipped everyone’s mind.


Second, advances in reentry vehicle technology allow for the little buggers to maneuver as they fall back to Earth, severely complicating the task of shooting them down, and also reducing range. Making a more advanced missile harder to hit potentially allows them to drop a missile’s effective range to one that would, with a less sophisticated system, be banned.

But, as you recall, there are two flavors of missile involved. It turns out Russia is pushing INF treaty limits on the short-range threshold using cruise missiles.

Russia has a nice new short-range cruise missile called the Iskander-K missile system (sometimes known as the R-500). Russian officials have helpfully pointed out that they so very easily could extend the range of this new missile, if only it weren't for that pesky treaty.

This is compounded by another definition problem — this one about range. Cruise missiles spend up to a quarter of their time maneuvering around terrain to keep its ninja-like approach from setting off alarms. If flown in a straight line, a cruise missile can add 33% to its range. The original treaty defines range for cruise missiles as “the maximum distance which can be covered by the missile in its standard design mode flying until fuel exhaustion, determined by projecting its flight path [blah blah blah].” But it doesn't specify whether this “standard design mode flying” is the sneakier, ninja approach mode, or the full-on, reach out and touch someone mode.

This ambiguity, combined with helpful Russian statements about how they could totally violate the INF treaty if they wanted to means that there’s a great big question mark about the actual, real-life range of this particular Russian cruise missile.

As noted arms control scholar, Jeffrey Lewis sagely notes:

As a result, it's pretty hard to demonstrate that deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces would violate the 1987 treaty banning the deployment of intermediate range nuclear forces. At times, it seems like this treaty was drafted with all the precision of two winos trying to work out a complex problem in astrophysics. That's not so much a criticism of the U.S. negotiating team as it is a basic observation that sitting across the table from the Soviets was not a whole lot of fun for anyone. Both of these problems were well-known when the treaty was ratified, but the Senate and the Reagan administration judged them, correctly in my view, to be manageable, given the immense value of eliminating the entire arsenal of Soviet SS-20s.

Now, after years of watching the Russians cruelly teasing INF treaty limits, the Administration has started pestering the Russians about this whole thing via diplomatic channels. The Russians, drawing on their deep Russian cultural reserves of “Who gives a shit?” have responded by adopting a very meh-oriented posture.

Neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans have expressed much enthusiasm for the cut of Putin's jib, but the GOP folks seem bound and determined to be more upset than the President on this issue. The tricky part is that it’s not entirely clear whether or not the US should take “meh” for an answer here. That has a lot to do with Russian motivations for these antics, all of which will be revealed in the exciting conclusion!

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan