During the 1980s ground-based mobile missile systems became a major arms-control topic for the United States and the Soviet Union. The rationale of the superpowers on the matter was uncomplicated: both sides wanted them in Europe, yet each side was scared of the other possessing them. The US systems in place in Western Europe at the time probably worried Moscow more than the Soviet systems concerned Washington. The reason for this was the superiority of the US missile systems. The Pershing 2 and BGM-109G, the Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) system were newer and more advanced than their Soviet counterpart, the SS-20.
Those mutual fears and anxieties led President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to hammer out a treaty that eliminated all nuclear and conventional missiles with ranges between 310-620 miles (short range systems) and 620-3,420 miles (intermediate range) as well as their launchers. The treaty was named the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty for short. It was signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in December, 1987 and went into effect in June, 1988. At the time, the treaty was heralded as a major step forward towards eventual nuclear disarmament and peace. Then the Cold War came to an abrupt, unforeseen conclusion in 1991 and the treaty was largely forgotten for a long period of time.
In 2007, INF was again in the news. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that it no longer served the purposes of the Russian Federation. Putin’s chief military officer supported the statement by hinting that whether or not Russia remained bound by the guidelines of INF would depend on the United States intentions with the Ground Based Midcourse Defense missile system, which the US had planned to deploy in Eastern Europe. Those plans were eventually halted and replaced with a combined sea-land based system. The very system now becoming operational, with ground locations in Romania and soon Poland.
In 2017, The US/NATO missile defense system in Eastern Europe is not yet entirely online, however it continues to be a thorn in Russia’s side. For years Russia has spoken of the potential vulnerability which the system casts upon Russia and its strategic arsenal. In spite of countless assurances by the United States and NATO that the missile defense system is designed to counter missile threats from Iran, Russia has not backed down from its position. The West has not backed down from its commitment to the system. In fact, since the events in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, NATO and the US have become more determined to field the system as soon as possible. Russia views this reality as an indication that the true purpose of the missile shield is to neutralize Russia’s strategic arsenal.
Fast forward to the present day. News broke in the media today that the Russian’s are deploying a cruise missile in direct violation of INF. The news was probably something of a shock to the public, however, the US intelligence community and Pentagon have been monitoring the development of the SS-C-8 ( a cruise missile version of the SS-30A) and surmised that eventually the system would become operational. In fact, in 2014 the Obama administration accused Russia of violating INF by developing and testing this missile. Russia denies any treaty violation, however, the SS-C-8’s performance characteristics say otherwise. Its range is between 300 and 3,400 miles, a distance covered under the terms of INF. Russia currently has two battalions of SS-C-8 missiles in service. One is operational and deployed somewhere in the Russian Federation while the second unit is still working up.
For the short term, the appearance of the new Russian cruise missile will not affect the military picture or security situation in Eastern Europe. The violation issue will be viewed differently in Washington, however. Specifically, it will be seen as a challenge to the Trump administration at a moment of early upheaval with the resignation of Mike Flynn from the National Security Adviser chair. Further, the violation will make Trump’s desire to improve relations between the United States and Russia all the more difficult. Even though Vladimir Putin has stated a desire to also improve relations with the US, his recent actions suggest otherwise. Last Friday, Russian aircraft buzzed the destroyer USS.Porter while she was on patrol in the Black Sea. The incident was the first of its kind since Trump was inaugurated on 20 January.
Putin might not want a confrontation with the US, however, he is quite blatantly attempting to test the new president and see for himself just how far Trump can be pushed.