Russia’s alleged deployment of a treaty-breaching ground-launched cruise missile poses serious political–military questions for European states.

Sometime late last year, ground-launched cruise-missile batteries left Russia’s Kapustin Yar test range, possibly on flatbed rail trucks.1 Amongst these, United States officials contend, was a system that drives a coach and horses through the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Washington asserts that the cruise missile deployed at the end of 2016 has a range significantly above the INF Treaty threshold. Russia has so far dismissed the US claims.

The INF Treaty abolished a whole class of nuclear delivery systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. It was a central document in the final iteration of US–Soviet detente that helped end the Cold War.2 Arguably, it also supported strategic deterrence by reducing the risk of decoupling between the US and its European NATO allies, were Moscow to try to contain a nuclear exchange to the European theatre, avoiding strikes on either homeland by using only theatre nuclear weapons. Within the European theatre, the removal of ballistic and cruise missiles covered by the treaty reduced the pressure to adopt a launch-on-warning force posture.

Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance under the previous US administration, describes the INF Treaty as having ‘served the security interests of the United States and its Allies in Europe and Asia for almost thirty years. The Treaty is not just a bilateral arms control treaty between the Unites States and Russia but goes to the heart of Eurasian security.’3 Moscow, however, has expressed increasing discomfort with the treaty. In 2007, then-defence minister Sergei Ivanov argued that the treaty disadvantaged Russia and, in effect, no longer served its purpose.4 The George W. Bush administration at least tacitly agreed. Russia submitted a draft proposal for multilateralisation of the INF Treaty to the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva later that year, although the initiative went no further. In parallel, the Russian government has continuously asserted that US efforts to build missile defences in Europe are destabilising, especially in conjunction with Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001.

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Douglas Barrie is IISS Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2017

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