The INF Treaty is dead: will the arms race be won this time by the most agile or by the biggest wallet?

In an article I published several days ago that received wide resonance and republication not only within the English-speaking world but also in translation on Serbian, Italian and Russian portals, I argued that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was doing both his own country and the West a disservice by being so very polite and unthreatening, by his acquiescence in the slings and arrows we are sending his way with ever greater provocativeness.  Time to stop playing nice with the United States, I was saying. Time to respond forcefully to every new attempt by the United States to alter the global strategic balance and to pull the security blanket over to its side of the bed.  Only in that way, by instilling fear in the European and American publics, may the degenerative downward spiral to war be halted.




By a curious coincidence, this message to the Kremlin came just two days before Vladimir Vladimirovich changed course and delivered a tough as nails response to the US suspension and pending withdrawal from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces ( INF) treaty dating from 1987 that was one of the key arms limitation agreements holding in place a modicum of transparency and mutual trust between the nuclear superpowers.

As released Saturday afternoon, 2 February by Russian state television news broadcasts, a two or three minute long video showed President Putin seated at a table in one of the Kremlin salons with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seated to his right and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu seated to his left.  We hear Putin deliver his statement that the Russian Federation now suspends its participation in the INF Treaty just as the United States had done, “in mirror image fashion.”

Scenes from this brief reportage were carried later in the day by Euronews, which repeated also for nth time the reasons given by the United States’ for withdrawing from the treaty, namely alleged violations of its terms by the Russians. But as I recall, Euronews did carry Putin’s words that Russia would not return to negotiations until “our partners have matured… and are ready to negotiate on the substantive issues on an equitable basis.”

For its part, the BBC also was quick to carry a short video segment of Putin’s announcement from the Kremlin.  Commentary was provided by their Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg, who opined that “this looks like the beginning of a New Cold War.”  That conclusion, which others had drawn more than two years ago, suggests that Rosenberg and his London editors have been asleep at the wheel. Other Western media observers got it right, saying that “it looks like the beginning of a new arms race.”

Full Russian coverage of the Kremlin meeting with extensive interpretive commentary was delivered on 3 February by Dmitry Kiselyov, the country’s senior news administrator and anchor of the News on Sunday program.  The respective segment of the program takes us through the well-rehearsed Kremlin theater piece which was addressed to two audiences simultaneously: the home audience within Russia which has its own questions about the INF decision and what it will mean not just for state security but for their standard of living, and the Western decision-makers in Washington and Brussels, whom Putin treated to just bare diplomatic niceties and a lot of hidden threats for them to think through.

In particular, without naming them, his words swept aside all Europeans like Angela Merkel and her Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, who have in recent weeks positioned themselves as potential mediators in the Russian-U.S. dispute over the INF Treaty, beckoning Russia to submit to U.S. ultimatums and destroy one of their missile systems said to be in noncompliance so as to ensure continued U.S. adherence to the treaty, allowing the Europeans to sleep anxiety-free.

As we see from Kiselyov’s show, the Kremlin meeting opened with Putin’s asking each of the ministers to report on what had happened: why the United States was leaving the treaty and under what circumstances.  The collective voices of Lavrov and Shoigu set out the following story.

They enumerated American violations of the letter and spirit of the treaty going back as far as 1999, when the United States began producing military drones with operational characteristics close to those of land-based cruise missiles. As from 2014  American violation became especially egregious as work began on installation of what were called anti-ballistic missile systems in Romania and Poland. In the expert opinion of the Russians, this American infrastructure close to Russian borders can easily and very quickly be converted from ABM use to  launch of compatible offensive intermediate range missiles. Such reconversion, taking perhaps half an hour of reprogramming, would directly violate the treaty and cannot be verified

They pointed to recent US Congressional appropriations for the development of precisely the category of intermediate and short range land based nuclear armed cruise missiles which the treaty prohibits. Finally, and conclusively, in support of the Lavrov – Shoigu testimony to the President, the commentary section showed Russian satellite images of the Tucson, Arizona R&D and production center of Raytheon Corporation. This industrial estate has been recently built up and taken on 2,000 workers to produce missile categories banned by the treaty, in particular the Tomahawk.

Having heard the ministerial reports, Putin then delivered his decision on what Russia would do about all of this.  First, as reported by most media, Russia would respond to the Americans in “mirror-like fashion,” suspending its observation of the treaty with immediate effect and withdrawing from it within the time limits it prescribes.  In addition, Putin directed both ministers not to initiate any talks whatsoever with the Americans on arms limitation [NB, “arms limitation” generally, and not only related to the INF Treaty] “until our partners have matured… and are ready to negotiate on  substantive issues on an equitable basis.”

But that part, largely reported in the Western mass media, was by no means all. Putin went on to instruct Shoigu to prepare a program of development work to enable the stationing on land-based launchers of the intermediate range Kalibr cruise missile, which currently is housed only on naval ships.  The high-precision intermediate range Kalibr missile was tested extensively and successfully  in wartime conditions during Russia’s air operations in Syria against ISIS targets that began in September 2015. It had been fired from Russian corvettes in the Caspian Sea.  In addition, Putin called upon Shoigu to begin similar work to modify the recently announced Russian hypersonic missiles, originally designed for launch by air force units to be ground-launch capable and ready for installation anywhere in European Russia. It must be recalled that the hypersonic weapons systems are cutting edge technology where Russia claims to be a decade ahead of the West.

No sooner than Shoigu had taken in these marching orders, than Putin asked him:  can all this be done within the officially approved military budget for 2019-2020, that is without supplemental appropriations?  Shoigu said that was possible.

The context for this exchange merits explanation.  All talk of a new arms race in the West has assumed that the vastly larger American economy will be able to assume new expenses that would be ruinous for the much smaller Russian economy, leading to Russian collapse just as the Soviet Union was said to have collapsed under the pressure of Reagan’s Star Wars program.  Let us remember that the budget of the Pentagon is already more than 10 times greater than Russia’s military budget.

Putin’s point was crystal clear:  he insists that his team is vastly more creative, able to “think outside the box” than his Soviet predecessors were or than his American contemporaries are, and that by means of unique technologies, unique dedication of Russian researchers and production staff Russia can produce “asymmetrical defensive solutions” that overcome and defeat American offensive weapons systems costing many times more.

Putin’s lecture to Washington did not end there.

He went on to say that these two Russian weapons systems and others that he had announced at his 1 March 2018 speech to the joint session of the Russian parliament were not all the new systems that his country is preparing and which can ensure his country’s defense whatever adversaries may think of developing.  And he rounded this out by instructing Shoigu to prepare visits for him with the country’s arms development and production centers, naming in particular the one responsible for a whole new weapons class, a long-distance high speed nuclear armed drone torpedo operating in the depths of the ocean and capable  of destroying port cities anywhere in the world, the tentatively named “Poseidon.”

Putin closed his meeting with his Foreign and Defense ministers by saying very clearly that notwithstanding Russia’s moving directly into the coming arms race without trepidation “the door is open” to negotiations and, most importantly, that he will not deploy the new land-based intermediate and short range nuclear missiles until and unless U.S.-produced systems are deployed within striking distance of Russia, meaning in Europe and possibly in Japan.

True, in his speech Putin retained his respectful vocabulary of “our partners” but otherwise what he said eliminated any possibility of misunderstanding Russia’s determination to protect itself, come what may.  It also restored the situation which prevailed during the entire original Cold War:  that Russia’s only talking partner on existential issues of security is the United States.  Europe has ceased to be relevant as a talking partner in these matters even though the roll-out of intermediate and short range missiles by both the United States and Russia directly affects the viability of Europe in any future great power clash.

I remind readers that the adversarial relationship between the United States and Russia arose in the second administration of the Clinton presidency with the expansion of NATO eastward and with the first steps towards outright economic warfare in the energy sector with the creation of pipelines (first the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) to bring Central Asian oil and gas to European markets by skirting Russian borders and at the expense of Russian producers.  Throughout the past 25 years a more agile and determined Russia has bested the United States and had its way in each and every energy corridor which the United States tried to block with might and main and dirty tricks.   It remains to be seen whether the same agility and skills will bring Russia victory in the coming new arms race, or whether the bludgeon of American economic strength will win out.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

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