WASHINGTON – The United States has informed its NATO allies that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, in breach of a key arms control treaty banning medium-range nuclear missiles.
According to reports in the New York Times, citing US officials, Russia has been conducting flight tests since 2008 of a ground-launched cruise missile.
Such tests are prohibited by the treaty banning medium-range missiles that was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, and that has long been viewed as one of the bedrock accords that brought an end to the Cold War.
Beginning in May, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s senior arms control official, has repeatedly raised the missile tests with Russian officials, who have responded that they have investigated the matter and consider the case to be closed.
But Obama administration officials are not yet ready to formally declare the tests of the missile, which has not been deployed, to be a violation of the 1987 treaty.
The US has not publicly stated that Moscow is in breach of the treaty but it has now briefed its Nato allies on the issue.
Washington is also reported to have raised concerns with the Russians several times during the past year but has been told that there is no issue to be resolved.
A Nato official contacted by the BBC responded to the reports by noting that “compliance with arms control treaties is a serious matter”.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the official said, was “a key component of Euro-Atlantic security, and compliance with arms control treaties is fundamental to building mutual trust and confidence, as is increased transparency in our dialogue with Russia”.
The 1987 INF Treaty was one of the key arms control agreements of the Cold War years.
It eliminated an entire category of nuclear-armed weapons; land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges of between 500km and 5,500km (310 miles and 3,400 miles).
This encompassed US Pershing and Cruise missiles based in Europe, along with the then Soviet Union’s SS-20 systems.
Today Russia’s missile inventory is complex, often with versions of land, sea and air-launched missiles that bear strong family resemblances.
Some experts believe that the cruise missile in question is the R-500; derived from the land-based Iskander-K.
There have been persistent reports that the Russians are in some way breaching the terms of the INF Treaty.
The treaty banning the testing, production and possession of medium-range missiles has long been regarded as a major step toward curbing the American and Russian arms race. “The importance of this treaty transcends numbers,” Reagan said during the treaty signing, adding that it underscored the value of “greater openness in military programs and forces.”
But after President Vladimir V. Putin rose to power and the Russian military began to re-evaluate its strategy, the Kremlin developed second thoughts about the accord. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Sergei B. Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, proposed that the two sides drop the treaty.
Though the Cold War was over, he argued that Russia still faced threats from nations on its periphery, including China and potentially Pakistan. But the Bush administration was reluctant to terminate a treaty that NATO nations regarded as a cornerstone of arms control and whose abrogation would have enabled the Russians to increase missile forces directed at the United States’ allies in Asia.
At the same time, in his State of the Union address last year, Obama vowed to “seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals,” a goal American officials at one point hoped might form part of Obama’s legacy.
But administration officials and experts outside government say Congress is highly unlikely to approve an agreement mandating more cuts unless the question of Russian compliance with the medium-range treaty is resolved.