On July 28, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Allegations of impropriety have been stewing for a few years now, with experts debating whether Russia had really crossed the line or not. (NB: the Russians also accuse the U.S. of pushing the limits of the treaty with its ABM systems and testing decoys.) Presumably, U.S.-Russian consultations on that issue have hit a dead-end. This raises the question: why did the United States choose to bring up INF now, in the midst of rising tensions over Ukraine?
The question is worth asking because the INF is one of the most important arms control treaties entered into by the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. As such, it is also one of the most visible, tangible, and fundamental embodiments of the common security interest underlying the two countries' relationship. When concerns about treaty compliance arise, the sides typically address them in formal and informal consultations out of the glare of public attention -- which is exactly what was done over the past three years. Calling out the other side publicly is an abnormal step which can put real pressure on the treaty itself. So why is the United States doing that now?
There are a number of different answers, each tied to an expectation of how Russia will react to the accusation. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin could publicly back down by promising to address the compliance issues in good faith. That would preserve, for now, the common interest and indicate an underlying resilience in the nuclear understanding between the two countries despite the crises in other spheres of engagement. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama might be under the belief that INF compliance would be an easy de-escalation option for Putin that would take some of the urgency out of the general political crisis over Ukraine, which has been exacerbated by the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. In other words, INF compliance would be a signal of reassurance to the international community that the bad old days are not coming back.
However, this expectation might be a little optimistic (or worse, naive). Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, the Russian approach to relations with the United States has centered around making Washington play a guessing game as to whether those bad old days are, in fact, coming back. Throughout his career, Putin has repeatedly made comments suggesting that the pre-1989 world was actually preferable to the post-Cold War. While some of this may have just been bluff or noise for domestic consumption, it would be a tall order to expect the Russian president to perform a volte face and publicly embrace such a visible symbol of the new order as the INF.
Second, the United States may believe that publicly accusing Russia of violating the INF could result in a private breakthrough in bilateral consultations on the issues. In other words, Putin could say nothing in public, but signal a secret willingness to smooth things over. There are a few problems with this interpretation, mostly to do with signalling and audiences. Presumably, if Russia wants to trade compliance for some political benefit, this has to be done in the public eye. It is hard to see how the United States would manage the optics of a public carrot for a private trade-off. At the same time, Russia would not benefit from private compliance because signaling value would be lost compared with a public message.
Third, there is the possibility that Obama expects the Russians to renounce the INF. The possibility is hard to ignore, but gut instinct seems to suggest we are not in danger of such a radical move yet. I say "gut instinct" because it is difficult to second-guess why in the first place Russia was moving ahead with its alleged violations. And, I say "hard to ignore" because the political environment is now venomous enough--and nationalistic fervour in Russia heightened enough--that Putin might see few political costs to further escalation. If Russia genuinely feels that is threatened by the U.S. ABM systems in Europe in the same way as the Pershing IIs of the late-Cold War, perhaps it will choose such a path. But, if Moscow's griping about AEGIS on-shore and associated systems is really the fig-leaf that some analysts believe it to be, then preserving the INF would seem to be in its favour. However, within both the United States and Russia, there are calls for updating the INF to allows for deployments ex-Europe (and see NYT article on latest developments for old Russian proposals). While there is absolutely no evidence this view has moved into the mainstream of U.S. strategic thinking, it is possible that the Obama administration would see some upside to the end of INF in allowing flexibility in the Asia Pacific.
Finally, it is possible that Russia does nothing and says nothing. An equivalent outcome would be for Moscow to simply state that it does not consider itself to be in violation of the INF. If this is the likely outcome, then the only gain the United States would see from pointing a public finger at Putin would be rhetorical shaming. Piling on the blame and pressure may well be an integral part of the U.S. strategy for maintaining momentum on sanctions and ostracizing Russia. The question then becomes: how much does the world care about INF?
Chances are, the Obama administration has considered all of these outcomes and decided that any of them would be acceptable. At this point, a decision on Russian withdrawal from INF could be seen as not quite the crisis it would have been in 2011 when Clinton, McFaul, and others were still pursuing a reset in relations. As a study in escalatory tactics, the effects of the U.S. decision to go public on the issue should be monitored closely.