Withdraw, Retaliate, or Sit Tight? CRS Outlines Options on INF Treaty

The US has an array of options for responding to Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and all of them are tricky, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Every year since at least 2014, CRS reports, the Department of State determined that Russia has violated the treaty, which prohibits the US and Russia from possessing, producing, or flight-testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range between 500 and 5,500 km.

To respond to Russia’s repeated non-compliance with the INF Treaty, CRS suggests the US could convene the Treaty’s Special Verification Commission to study and clarify potential violations of the treaty as a diplomatic way forward. But such a move “might not lead to a prompt resolution of the INF debate,” CRS says, and “the process could still take years to reach a conclusion.”

CRS also considers the possibility of US withdrawal from the treaty, but because the US does not currently have a viable ground-launch cruise missile system of its own, “US withdrawal would leave Russia as the only party able to benefit from the elimination of the treaty limits.”

On the other hand, CRS finds that a US research program aimed at developing its own matching missile capability “might boost the diplomatic dialogue by creating incentives for Russia to address US concerns and preserve the INF Treaty.”

Down the road, even if the US does decide to deploy a new ground-launched missile system, “it could be very difficult to find an allied country in Europe or Asia that was willing to house those missiles,” CRS finds. A better response might be “new air-delivered or sea-based cruise missiles that would be consistent with the terms of the INF Treaty and would not require basing on allied territories.”

In the meantime, CRS says the US could “expand its missile defense capabilities in Europe and Asia in response to the deployment of new Russian missiles” and provide more information to NATO allies about the specifics of Russian violations of the treaty. Along with this sort of diplomatic strategy, CRS suggests that “the United States may be able to defend its allies and respond to Russian aggression with conventional weapons and existing capabilities.”

If the US takes this sort of approach, however, it “may need to respond with measures directed more at the political concerns of its allies than at the military capabilities of Russia.” CRS notes specifically that “some European allies, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, have expressed concern about the United States’ reduced conventional force posture in Europe,” vis a vis Russia.

In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress has indicated its preferred response by “providing funding for research into defenses, counterforce capabilities, and countervailing capabilities,” CRS says. The bill, which has passed both the House and the Senate and waits for President Trump’s signature, also mandates “that DOD begin a program of record to develop a new US ground-launched cruise missile.”

The White House has objected to such a move because it might not harmonize with its ongoing work to develop “an integrated diplomatic, military, and economic response strategy to maximize pressure on Russia” and because it could “limit potential military response options.”