At the moment, Russia’s march on Crimea tops the United States’ list of issues with its onetime foe. But it is hardly the whole list. Rather, as The New York Times reported in January, Washington apparently believes that Moscow has also been busy violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a pact between the two banning the use of both nuclear and conventionally armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles within a certain range. This is no minor matter. When the treaty was signed in 1987, it was taken as a signal that the Cold War was finally thawing and, since then, it has been a been a defining element in U.S.-Russian relations, the United States and NATO’s deterrent posture, and the broader architecture of global arms control.
Despite this legacy, Russia has apparently developed a cruise missile designed to operate in the treaty’s prohibited range of 500 to 5,550 kilometers and has reportedly developed an RS-26 ballistic missile that also appears to have been designed for intermediate ranges; the latter missile has just barely reached beyond 5,500 kilometers with a minimal payload in testing. With much of the data about these issues withheld, it is impossible to make a final judgment about whether Moscow has broken the INF pact. But it does seem fairly clear that Moscow is determined to do end-run on INF, something backed up by the many reports, for instance in former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ recent memoirs, that Moscow -- and particularly its military -- has been keen to escape the INF straightjacket for years. Indeed, there are some indications that the country is just waiting for the United States to do it the favor of terminating INF.
In the wake of the tests, some observers, including at the Heritage Foundation, have been calling for the United States to do just that. And terminating the INF would certainly send a strong message. But, at this stage, it would be rash and ill-advised.