ICBM at military parade in Moscow
An ICBM on parade in Moscow, May 2015. Photo copyright David Trilling.

INF, New Start and What Really Matters for US-Russian Nuclear Arms Control

February 24, 2017
Hans M. Kristensen

Over the past several years, Russia and the West have entered into a dangerous new exchange of threats, counter-threats, aggressive posturing and mutual recriminations in the nuclear arena. This, in turn, has bred a fundamentally new political climate and operational dynamic between Moscow and Washington/Brussels, posing a serious challenge to the status and future of nuclear arms control. While some have responded by calling for the cancellation of existing arms control agreements or questioning the need for new ones, such agreements are in fact more important in contentious times than ever: Global security requires a healthy mix of arms control and balanced defense planning to limit offensive capabilities, facilitate verification and transparency and counter misunderstandings, mistrust and worst-case planning.

The recent tensions have several immediate causes, though, at times, legitimate concerns become difficult to disentangle from conjecture.

Western worries about Russia stem from its operations with nuclear-capable forces and explicit threats against individual NATO countries, combined with general military posturing and the invasion of Ukraine. This has led to fears that Russia is once again a direct threat to NATO and might have even lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons. Several treaties also play into the drama: Russia has unilaterally pulled out of an agreement with the U.S. on disposing of weapons-grade plutonium; the U.S. has accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and some are—wrongly—concerned that the Kremlin is flouting nuclear-arms limits set by the New START Treaty.

The West has reacted by reinstating Russia as an official threat and the central basis for NATO military planning. The United States has increased strategic bomber strike planning in support of European Command, reinstated bomber strike exercises over the North Pole and North Atlantic and resumed occasional port visits to Scotland by submarines with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Some current and former officials have even suggested the United States should reassess its nuclear force level and strategy, consider withdrawing from existing nuclear arms limitation treaties and refuse to negotiate new ones.

Taken together this raises a troubling question: Will the new crisis—with its extensive nuclear weapons modernization programs on both sides and calls for more assertive nuclear planning—drag Russia and NATO back into a Cold War (which some contend has already begun) or even trigger a nuclear arms race?


The U.S. accusations that Russia has violated the INF Treaty have left a lot of unanswered questions, making it that much easier for Moscow to deny the allegations outright. The U.S. government has refused to identify the Russian missile, though, in response to questions, officials have gotten more specific about what the missile is not. Ultimately, a high-level U.S. defense official called the weapon “state-of-the-art,” emphasizing that it is something new. Most recently, the New York Times, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that Russia had moved beyond development and deployed a new dual-capable ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). One battalion allegedly has been deployed, a second is getting ready and the officials say more are on their way.

For keen observers of the Russian military it seems perplexing that Russia would want to undercut a treaty that has kept American GLCMs out of Europe. Indeed, Russia’s complaint about the U.S. missile defense launchers installed in Romania has been that they could be used to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russian territory.  Some analysts have wondered whether Russia is gambling that Europe—where the memory of contentious political battles over INF deployment in the 1980s is still fresh—would not allow American GLCMs on its territory. In fact, though, the U.S. could handily counter Russian GLCMs with other systems that already exist. If Moscow is indeed violating the treaty, perhaps it is to deter China, whose development of INF weapons is a concern? Or maybe the decision to violate was not strategic but lobbied through by the defense industry?

Whatever the answers may be, the INF frictions have deepened perceptions in the West that Russia can not be trusted, doesn’t care about honoring past agreements and is no longer interested in maintaining peaceful relations with NATO. Moreover, the accusations about a new Russian GLCM have triggered calls for a tit-for-tat response. Five U.S. senators known for their hard-line defense views recently proposed the INF “Preservation Act.” A contradiction in terms, the act would require the United States to begin development of its own GLCM and “transfer INF range systems to allied countries,” which would both violate the treaty and remove pressure on Russia to return to compliance.

Fortunately, the U.S. military has so far shown little appetite for a tit-for-tat approach and has focused instead on adjusting existing and emerging capabilities to deprive Russia of a military advantage. As suggested above, there seems to be little appetite in NATO to reintroduce INF missiles in Europe; indeed, attempts to push such a deployment through NATO bureaucracy could split the alliance.

Militarily the United States doesn’t have to deploy a new GLCM in Europe. The U.S. military and NATO have more than ample capabilities to counter a Russian GLCM deployment. Long-range sea-based Tactical Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles are continuously deployed in the European theater and are now frequently deploying in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea areas as well. The Air Force has recently added the long-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) to its B-1 and B-52 strategic bombers operating in Europe, deployed the JASSM to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and is selling it to Poland and Finland to equip their fighter-bombers as well. The sale to both countries will for the first time bring strategic nuclear forces in western Russia within range of long-range precision conventional weapons based in Eastern Europe.


Far more important than the INF Treaty is the New START Treaty that regulates the much more capable long-range strategic nuclear forces of Russia and the United States. Those are the forces that determine the broad strategic stability between Moscow and the West—and this is the arena where, despite a great deal of handwringing, Russia lags far behind.

It has caused great consternation among some analysts that Russia currently deploys more nuclear warheads on its strategic launchers than New START allows by February 2018. In fact this results from an overlap in new systems coming online and old systems getting decommissioned. The treaty does not set any limits before that date, so Russia is not in violation. And it will only require an adjustment of a few launchers to drop below the limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by next year’s deadline.

More importantly, Russia has been far below the treaty limit of 700 deployed strategic launchers since before New START entered into force in February 2010. (The U.S. met this requirement only last year.) And in the most recent bilateral count from September 2016, Russia had 173 fewer launchers than the United States. That’s the number that matters: Warheads can be moved but launchers provide the real strategic structure. And the U.S. has nearly 2,000 strategic warheads in storage that it can add to its launchers if necessary; Russia does not have nearly as much upload capability on its force.

It is on this basis that the Pentagon in coordination with the U.S. Intelligence Community informed Congress in 2012 that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty.”

Yet shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, some former U.S. defense officials nonetheless began to question whether “the weapons limits imposed by New START [are] still consistent with our own and our allies’ national security requirements” and “whether our security can afford a strategic arsenal capped at limits which were based on an alternate reality.”

Defense hawks frequently claim that Russia has lowered the threshold for using nuclear weapons and have argued that NATO and the United States must beef up their planning and nuclear weapons capabilities in response. Too often these arguments involve some confusion of two separate ideas: that Russia has adjusted its strategy for using tactical nuclear weapons in response to a NATO conventional attack—similar to NATO’s nuclear strategy in the 1980s; or that Russia would consider using nuclear weapons even before a NATO conventional counterattack—which remains unclear. The former defense official quoted above said in 2015 that “Moscow is using an entirely different definition of ‘escalating to deescalate’” than NATO used when threatening nuclear escalation if its conventional defenses were failing, by “employing the threat of selective and limited use of nuclear weapons to forestall opposition to potential aggression.” (Emphasis added.)

There is little information in the public domain to support that Russia has chosen the lower threshold described above, but it appears to have a significant effect on U.S. policy thinking. After winning the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” When asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” what he meant, Trump doubled down: "Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." Trump reiterated the sentiment just this week, saying he wants to expand America’s nuclear arsenal to keep it at the "top of the pack."

Indeed, when he had his first White House phone call with Vladimir Putin in early February 2017, Trump reportedly brushed aside an offer by his Russian counterpart to extend the New START Treaty by another five years and denounced the treaty as a bad deal for the United States.

Despite such perceptions, however, at least in the foreseeable future Russia does not appear to have a strategic advantage in the nuclear arena. Russian leaders realize that if they were to enter their country into a race with the U.S. to seek such an advantage, they would lose because of America's economic superiority. Instead of abandoning nuclear arms control and relieving Russia from treaty obligations, the United States should continue a policy of maintaining strategic stability with Russia by combining arms control with a safe and secure retaliatory capability.


Hans M. Kristensen

Hans M. Kristensen is director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.