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On December 21, the United Nations General Assembly voted down a Russian-proposed resolution calling for support for the INF Treaty. That Moscow gambit failed, in large part because Russia is violating the treaty by deploying prohibited missiles.

 

This bit of diplomatic show came one week after Russian officials said they would like to discuss INF Treaty compliance concerns. That could be—not is, but could be—significant. Washington should test whether those suggestions represent just more Kremlin posturing or a serious effort to save the treaty.

THE INF TREATY

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty in 1987. It resulted in the elimination of some 2,700 U.S. and Soviet missiles. The treaty continues to ban the United States and Russia from having ground-launched missiles of intermediate range (500-5,500 kilometers) as well as from having launchers for such missiles.

In 2014, the U.S. government publicly charged that Russia had violated the treaty by developing and testing a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile. In early 2017, U.S. officials said the Russian military had begun deploying it.

From 2013 to late 2017, Russian officials claimed that they did not know what missile Washington had in mind. After a U.S. official revealed that the Russian designator for the offending missile was 9M729, Russian officials conceded that the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile existed but asserted that its range did not exceed 500 kilometers.

On December 4, NATO foreign ministers stated that the development and deployment of the 9M729 constituted a material breach of the INF Treaty. Secretary of State Pompeo the same day said that, if Russia did not return to compliance within 60 days, the United States would suspend its obligations under the treaty, meaning that it would face no treaty bar to testing and deploying its own intermediate-range missile. U.S. suspension of its obligations would relieve Russia of the requirement to observe its obligations.

The treaty seemed fixed on a path for demise.

SIGNS OF POSSIBLE LIFE?

Then, on December 14, Reuters reported that a Russian foreign ministry official had said Moscow envisaged the possibility of mutual inspections to resolve the sides’ compliance concerns. The next day, the Associated Press and TASS said Defense Minister Shoygu had sent Secretary of Defense Mattis a message proposing “open and specific” talks on compliance issues.

As with the failed U.N. resolution, these statements could just represent posturing. Indeed, given the lack of serious engagement for nearly five years, it likely is part of Moscow’s effort to ensure that blame for the INF Treaty’s end falls on Washington.

There is, however, a small chance that the Russians seek a settlement. U.S. officials should explore this, if for no other reason than that a failure to do so would increase the prospects that Washington bears the responsibility for the agreement’s collapse in the eyes of publics and allies.

The big question: Are the Russians willing to exhibit the 9M729 and provide a technical briefing to American experts on why the missile’s range does not exceed 500 kilometers? That invariably would entail questions about the capacity of the missile’s fuel tanks and power of its engine. U.S. experts might also ask why, if the 9M729 can fly no further than 500 kilometers, Russia built the missile when it already deploys the modern 9M728, a ground-launched cruise missile whose range is also less than 500 kilometers.

Working out the details for this kind of exhibit and briefing would require some patience and delicacy. It would require agreeing to procedures not specified in the INF Treaty. It would also require steps to ensure that U.S. experts had the opportunity to view a 9M729, not something else. But the State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence community have bright people who could figure out how to make this work.

Of course, if the 9M729’s range exceeds 500 kilometers, the treaty requires its elimination. Senior American officials, however, have allowed for the possibility that Russia might satisfy U.S. concerns by modifying the missile so that it could not fly to intermediate ranges.

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