Quick Thoughts on INF

Another treaty – this time, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) – slain by John Bolton, the unilateralest man alive. It will come as no shock that I find this move misguided, executed in bad faith, and sure to have counterproductive second- and third-order effects. Bolton’s single-minded hostility to the very notion of arms control should be cause for skepticism. It is on his watch that multiple cornerstones of the late Cold War arms control regime have been dismantled.

INF withdrawal, in particular, should be condemned on two main grounds: those of principle and those of logic. U.S. intent to leave the treaty fails on both counts.


Arms control is itself almost always a net good. It brings together party-states in dialogue and discussion (itself a confidence-building measure), and when accompanied by measures like on-site inspections and periodic review committee meetings, ensures the basis for continuing conversation and face-to-face meetings. Treaties represent the culmination of a decade or more of negotiations and hard-fought compromises and should never be dismissed lightly; e.g., for anything less than a grave and imminent threat to national security. The SSC-8 decidedly does not rise to this level.

By leaving the INF, the United States concedes the moral high ground to Russia. Regardless of whether the SSC-8’s range does or does not violate the treaty, a violation is qualitatively different from a dismantling. In the eyes of allies and the world, the United States has chosen yet again to abrogate a treaty that has dampened nuclear tensions for decades, irrespective of other details. Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen have more on some of these aspects.

Furthermore, Keeping ground-launched nuclear platforms out of Europe for a generation has been a welcome development in continental affairs. The prospect of jettisoning a bulwark of allied strategic stability has surely been unwelcome (if not unexpected) in European capitals.


A subset of China hawks argue that membership in INF has placed us at a perpetual disadvantage in the Western Pacific, by virtue of constraining our own missile development while the PLA Rocket Force continues to deploy mass quantities of ballistic missiles throughout the theater.  But this argument falls flat when considered at any level deeper than “they’ve got them so we must too.”

US Territories Map

Where would such weapons be based in the region? Guam, presumably. But that faces challenges of its own. As Pranay Vaddi writes for Carnegie:

Guam is small, about 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. Only a portion of that territory would be suitable for basing GBIRs. Given these space constraints, deploying GBIRs on Guam would lessen the survivability advantage that mobile missile systems usually provide by being dispersed across a vast geographic expanse (as demonstrated by China’s own mobile missile force). Additionally, the already significant U.S. military presence makes Guam an early target in any conflict with China.

So where else? Given recent debates over conventional forces in Okinawa, that can safely be ruled out, and so too other Japanese bases. Placing U.S. missiles in Taiwan or the South China Sea would so provocative a move as to preclude consideration. And once you get to Wake and beyond, you’re into ICBM range, so INF-noncompliant systems don’t provide a lot of additional capability.

All of this raises a larger issue: do we really have a capability shortfall in the Western Pacific? It’s unclear whether INF withdrawal advocates think we need IRBMs of our own to counter ships or to hold the Chinese mainland at risk, but in the case of the former, we lack the targeting kill chain to enable ballistic missile usage against moving targets (like, say, a Chinese CV). The Minuteman III uses a guidance system better-for fixed, albeit small, targets.

But it is also for this reason that U.S. precision weapons development traveled down alternative paths. Instead of a GLCM, we have the TLAM with a thousand-mile range that can be launched from submarines and surface combatants alike. The Strategic Capabilities Office – at least for now – continues to pursue new uses for existing platforms, like repurposing the SM-6 SAM into an antiship cruise missile. Between stealthy platforms, standoff munitions, and existing global strike capabilities, the United States can already – and easily – hold Chinese ships, units, and land targets at risk. Other than sheer numbers, what capabilities do new in-theater platforms have to offer?

Another argument, made in even worse faith, is the fact that the INF Treaty does not include China. This follows on the heels of unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – a plan to constrain Iranian nuclear weapons – for not addressing Iranian missile development. Perhaps an arms control regime ought to include more than the original signatories: China has the largest missile arsenal in the world and there are obvious arms-race implications for this. But this in turn would suggest Indian participation in such a regime, and thus Pakistan’s, and so on. The difficulty in achieving such a multilateral agreement is the same reason there has be no movement on multilateralizing the nuclear disarmament movement. And it is for this reason that a painstakingly negotiated accord between two countries should not be thrown away for want of a third. U.S.-Russian INF is a building block for future expansion. A treaty addressing one subject is not defunct because it doesn’t address another.

INF is worth preserving. It is worth additional discussion between both parties to it, and more immediately, a real discussion on how best to enforce arms control arrangements (this is, perhaps, the most pressing issue for the future of INF, New START and any future progress on arms control). I found Rebecca Hersman, the CSIS PONI Director, to have one of the few decent ways forward if we must leave the treaty:

  1. We should declare that while in a post-INF world the United States can test and deploy ground base and intermediate range missile systems however, it has no need or intention to do so. We have the principle, but we do not need the capabilities.

  2. We should make clear that the U.S. stands for the principle of compliance. We also believe international agreements should be judged independently on their merits and on that basis that New START should be extended.

And even more to the point, it is Russia that has violated the INF Treaty. If the treaty is to wither and die, it should be Russia who lets it – not the United States.

The Self-Inflicted Myth of Omnipotent Russia


One of many examples of the Russian/Soviet octopus in art, its tentacles implying a dominion it possesses anything but.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Keith Gessen’s terrific article on the “Russia hands” of the US foreign policy establishment, do yourself a favor and switch over to it right now.

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has done a very poor job of extending anything like a hand to a fallen opponent. For all the hopeful talk of “a Marshall Plan for Russia,” all that the West seemed to offer the former Soviet Union was a path to privatization, deprivation, and the extreme enrichment of a few oligarchs, while at the same time picking off what was once considered the periphery of a millennia-old empire.

Unlike with other countries – say, China, which presents probably the most extensive security challenge to the west in the next few decades – there is a lack of nuanced discussion, or indeed even debate at all. In most quarters, Russia is an omnipotent boogeyman, “the bear awakened,” America’s arch-nemesis with whom no cooperation is possible. Even the mere suggestion that Russia and the United States might enjoy a shared interest or two is met with incredulity if not outright hostility.

Gessen does a fantastic job of comprehensively mapping the “breadth” of thought on Russia throughout the American national security apparatus, and it’s worth quoting extensively:

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

And that, as Gessen goes onto say, is part of the reason US foreign policy has become so irrational and unhinged when it comes to relations with Russia – the vast majority of “Russia hands” in the establishment are hardliners who, despite a reasonably good understanding of the history and culture of Russia, insist on a broad nefariousness that makes it difficult to establish a productive working relationship. This naturally leads to a rather cloistered view of the possible, and the appropriate.

A selection of suggested alternative bear analogies.

Outside of the lone voices like Kofman and Kimmage and Charap, (and a Bartles) most within the defense and security establishment have a conception of Russia oriented solely around Moscow’s hard power capabilities and its attitude towards the United States (as opposed to any other part of the world). Some of the most valuable analysis on contemporary Russia comes from Mark Galeotti, a British academic whose primary focus is Russian organized crime, but also for whom this is a valuable lens with which to examine the country as a whole. This kind of policy tunnel vision is disastrous for any country, and doubly so for one like the United States, which devotes so many resources to the outcomes of these debates.

But to return to Sestanovich’s formulation – e.g., the cultural versus the political – I was reminded of this duality in Rachel Wiseman’s recent contribution on Joseph Brodsky and “uselessness” to The Point‘s debate on intellectualism (ironically, Wiseman in turn goes on to cite none other than Gessen himself on Brodsky, and challenges his interpretation of the latter’s poetry as mere “aesthetics instead of ethics,” rather than “aesthetics as ethics”):

When I first discovered Brodsky I was stumbling my way into a Russian major, starting with a freshman language class where we memorized lines of Pushkin before we knew how to count to ten. I signed up for more classes in the department, one after another, even though I had no idea what I could do with a B.A. in Russian besides maybe going into academia or the CIA. I was drawn, as if by the gravity of a foreign object, to the lives and works of Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Platonov, Brodsky.

So it was for me: tales of Rurik, Novgorod, and 862, along with Chekhov and a brief overview of Cyrillic, turned into a lifelong interest with Russia (and my own dabbling in the language early on in college). And I think that that’s where part of the disconnect lies – between those who first came to Russia as a cultural-historical entity encompassing a tremendous range of literature, music, and other arts, versus those who approached it first and foremost as a political actor on the world stage locked in an ideological conflict with the United States.

I’m not saying that the Russia hawks need more Dostoevsky in their lives, but rather that it makes sense to evaluate Russia somewhere in between a completely detached relative morality and Daniel Fried’s holding them “up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” Much like the evolving historiographical approach to the American Civil War (I’m reminded here of some of Barbara Fields’ remarks in the Ken Burns documentary), in which you can evaluate morality by modern standards and actions by contextual ones. If we focus solely on the righteousness (or otherwise) of Russia’s actions, we lose the ability to understand from where they originate.

In other words, without empathy, we needlessly restrict our options.

It isn’t necessary to support Russian decisions and policies, but without a firm grasp on their origin – be it the historical quest for peripheral security, the pursuit of a unified identity, a struggle to modernize and be accepted as equal – it will be impossible to find satisfactory diplomatic outcomes. And should that continue to prove the case, should the two come to blows, the consequences are unimaginably dire. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States managed to negotiate multiple arms control treaties, the Outer Space Treaty, bans on entire weapons systems and classes of weapons systems, inspection regimes that left both vulnerable to the other.

The prospects for such seem remote today: a New START follow-on would be dead on arrival and legislators seriously discuss withdrawing from the INF Treaty, which would leave Open Skies as the sole international agreement allowing direct observation of the other party. Cooperative Threat Reduction is dead and gone, counterterror partnerships lie fallow, even climate change is (for obvious and deeply stupid reasons) a non-starter. But this, in a way, is exactly what the Russia hands have always wanted. Unbridled opposition and hostility makes their expertise necessary. An “angry bear” is a foe that they can speak to. But if the only Russia we can conceive of is one with whom we can’t treat, then that’s exactly what we’ll get. And that bodes ill for everyone.

The “Utility” of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons

The B61 family of modifications

The B61 family of modifications

An article in the New York Times made the rounds last week, asserting that the new modification (“mod”) of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb was of a lower yield than its predecessors, and arguing that lower-yield, precision weapons are destabilizing to nuclear strategy and that their relatively limited destructive capabilities in turn render them more likely to be used than the multi-megaton, Cold War-era city-busters. It was also proclaimed that this was the death knell for the Obama Administration’s disarmament and arms control efforts, and represented a “new arms race” between nuclear powers.

The argument is well-intentioned, but misguided.

The article quotes the usual suspects – James Cartwright, Andrew Weber, William Perry – and offers some assertions that are patently false on their face.

David Sanger and William Broad, the authors of this piece, focus solely on US weapons development and policy in a bubble, ignoring the larger context of the world in which nuclear weapons exist. As they and their interview subjects characterize it, the United States is the one upsetting the nuclear balance:

Already there are hints of a new arms race. Russia called the B61 tests “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.” China is said to be especially worried about plans for a nuclear-tipped cruise missile. And North Korea last week defended its pursuit of a hydrogen bomb by describing the “ever-growing nuclear threat” from the United States.

This, of course, ignores the fact that Russia has violated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, China has refused to enter into any arms control arrangements and is busy expanding its own arsenal (including the production of new nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles; the former something that the United States still will not do), and North Korea has rejected carrot and stick approaches alike dating back several decades. If the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the aftermath of the Cold War – or the past 30 years of sanctions – were insufficient to dissuade Pyongyang from nuclear proliferation, it’s hard to envision what would. Continue reading