How to bring Russia into INF compliance — without triggering a war

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 3, March 2019  

Russian S-400 air defence missile systems roll at Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow. Source: Michał Siergiejevicz via Flickr.

Anna J. Davidson
Scholar and Researcher

ABSTRACT   For all intents and purposes, the prevailing wisdom in both East and West suggests that the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is lost. On 4 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree officially terminating his country’s participation in the INF “until the United States of America rectifies its violations of the said Treaty or until it expires.” This action mirrors that by the United States in early February that accused Russia of violating the Treaty and instigated the six-month withdrawal process. Both of these steps follow five years of continuous effort by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to compel Russia’s compliance with the stipulations of the INF to no avail. As the August deadline approaches, the United States and Russia face three options: reach a mutual agreement on one another’s compliance to preserve the INF, draft a new arms control agreement, or allow the INF to expire and risk a renewed arms race as both countries continue developing their defense capabilities. Despite the wide acceptance of the latter, a potential incentive for Russia to return to INF compliance, and thus preserve the Treaty, exists in the Kremlin’s relationship with Ankara. As a NATO member state, Turkey finds itself in a unique position with the United States as an ally and Russia as a strategic partner. Turkey’s desire to purchase both the American Patriot and the Russian S-400 missile defense systems presents an opportunity to increase the value of Turkey’s partnership with Russia and decrease the significance of Russia’s need to develop missiles noncompliant with the INF. Turkey insists that it will proceed with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 systems regardless of Washington’s willingness (or lack thereof) to offer the American Patriot systems, as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act currently obstructs the purchase of Russian S-400s by Turkey. Yet, Turkey and Russia are proceeding with the exchange while simultaneously deepening cooperation in the Syria crisis, particularly Idlib. If the United States and NATO leverage Turkey’s request for the Patriot systems and take advantage of Russia’s urge to sell its S-400s to Turkey, the opportunity for a renegotiation and recommitment to the INF Treaty remains within reach. 

Five months remain for the United States and Russia to reach a mutual understanding on their compliance with one of the most significant symbols of international security cooperation. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, now has an official expiration date of August 2019 given alleged compliance violations by both the United States and Russia. On 4 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree officially terminated his country’s participation in the INF “until the United States of America rectifies its violations of the said Treaty or until it expires.[1]” This action mirrors that by the American leadership in early February that accused Russia of violating the Treaty and instigated the six-month withdrawal process.[2] Five years of efforts by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to compel Russian compliance have produced profoundly conflicting narratives of how and by whom the Treaty has been violated as Russian leadership denies such violations and instead accuses the United States of operating outside the Treaty’s provisions. At the heart of this dispute is Russia’s continued development of its 9M729 land-based cruise missile as it reportedly does not conform to the Treaty’s stipulations banning the development, testing, and deployment of such missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. Russian leaders claim the 9M729, part of the Iskander-M missile system, has a maximum distance capacity of only 480 kilometers and is therefore compliant with the Treaty.

As the August deadline approaches, the United States and Russia face three options: reach a mutual agreement on one another’s compliance to preserve the INF, draft a new arms control agreement, or allow the INF to expire and risk a renewed arms race as both countries continue developing their defense capabilities. The first option is ideal yet unattainable so long as development and testing of the 9M729 continues; however, there remains a possibility that the Russian government will agree to discontinue use of the 9M729 if the United States and NATO succeed in providing certain security guarantees. These guarantees must alleviate concerns that have motivated Russia to develop the 9M729 and decrease its national security vulnerabilities. The timely presence of Turkey’s desire for Russian S-400s and American Patriot missile defense systems may prove key to this scenario.

Russian national security concerns

Geopolitical security is a point of deep concern for the Kremlin that can be capitalized upon by Western efforts to return Russia to compliance with the INF Treaty. In order to do this, the West and the United States in particular must induce the conditions for perceived security by Russia’s leadership. Such conditions are possible by allowing Russia to enhance its security relations with Turkey as a NATO member state on its borders since it would assure the Kremlin that NATO does not intend to operate offensively without provocation, and neither does it pose a security threat simply due to the location of some of its member states. Russian behavior exhibits extreme trepidation toward military forces in close proximity to its borders and a natural inclination to compensate for its perceived vulnerabilities to such forces. During the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin emphasized that military forces including “NATO expansion…represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.”[3] When asked directly why Russia regards NATO expansion as a security threat instead of the exercise by democratic states of their rights to self-determination, Putin highlighted that NATO is “first and foremost a military and political alliance” unlike organizations such as the United Nations which do not typically deploy military infrastructure to their member states.[4] Russia has no evidence that NATO membership or affiliation by Eastern European states is not a threat to its security since such membership and affiliation entails the presence of military force. Therefore, Russia needs evidence that this perception is invalid, and Turkey represents an opportunity to provide that evidence.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin also underlined his country’s efforts to withdraw its forces from the Republic of Georgia at an “accelerated schedule” and that Russia with the Georgian government has resolved the remaining disputes. Despite such emphasis on the need to “feel safe,” NATO welcomed the aspirations of the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine to join the Alliance during the 2008 Bucharest Summit roughly a year after Putin’s speech. Georgia’s leadership then instigated provocative military operations against Russian forces and thus ensued the five-day Russo-Georgian War.[5]

In that same year, American officials announced the discovery of the Russian missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty when Russia began testing cruise missiles resembling the 9M729. Then President Barack Obama addressed the violation in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to take steps that would bring Russia back into compliance with the INF. The Kremlin responded by accusing the United States of already having violated the Treaty with the placement of the Aegis missile systems in Romania, which may be used to launch missiles restricted by the Treaty, prompting Putin to ask repeatedly, “who the system will work against.”[6]

Furthermore, the timing of Russia’s development of the missiles in 2008 that were likely the 9M729, or another version of the Iskander-M class, supports the theory that NATO expansion prompts Russian aggression. American Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, provided the assessment that Russia began development of the 9M729 in the mid-2000’s and that testing began by 2008.[7] With the intention proclaimed by NATO in 2008 to eventually invite and incorporate the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine into the Alliance, Russian leadership exhibited a deep interest in gaining assurance that NATO forces would not threaten its security. Despite verbal assurances that the relationships between NATO, Georgia, and Ukraine would not affect Russian security, Russia interpreted NATO activity and behavior by these two states after receiving an invitation promise by NATO as threatening. The discovery at this particular time made by American officials of Russia’s developments in missile defense is logical, and such developments will continue so long as Russian perceptions of insecurity in its near abroad are reinforced. Therefore, this perception must be actionably denied by addressing Russia’s security concerns in the region before development of the 9M729 will cease.

Turkey’s desperation for missile defense

Turkey is prepared to pay $3.5bn for the Russian S-400 missile defense systems while maintaining its intention to purchase the American Patriot missile defense systems as well. In December 2018, the U.S. State Department revealed to Congress the proposition to sell the Patriot systems to Turkey as an alternative to the S-400. Negotiations for the cost (an estimated $3.5bn), technology transfers, and a delivery period of the Patriot systems are still underway between Ankara and Washington as Moscow stands prepared to initiate the S-400 deal as soon as possible. However, American leadership is cautious toward deepened defense ties between Turkey and Russia. As Vice President Mike Pence underlined at last month’s Munich Security Conference, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”[8]

Turkey insists that it will proceed with the purchase of Russia’s S-400 systems regardless of Washington’s willingness to offer the American Patriot systems. Russia is prepared to complete the sale as early as July of this year and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has alluded to the possibility of later purchasing the Russian S-500 missile defense system as well.[9]

The strategic value of Turkey to Russia

Turkey’s decades-long membership in NATO has provided ample reason for Russia to develop a strategic partnership with its neighbor state. The perceived threat of NATO expansion eastward with two potential NATO members in Georgia and Ukraine is reasonable cause for Russia to strengthen relations with Turkey which, as a NATO member, could decrease the likelihood of conflict between Russia and the Alliance. The question is whether Russia will translate the United States allowing Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems while maintaining positive relations between Turkey, the United States, and NATO as a security guarantee calling for the suspension of its 9M729 land-based cruise missile — and the answer is yes. The following factors support this theory: Russia’s attempts to balance Turkey’s membership in NATO and Russia’s consideration of Turkey as a strategic partner in its efforts in Syria.

Russia has repeatedly targeted Turkey as a strategic partner due to its membership in NATO and alliance with the United States, and the motivation to provide Turkey with a uniquely Russian defense system is one of many attempts to balance Turkey’s position between Moscow and Washington. Along with defense technology, Russia supplies Turkey’s nuclear energy development by constructing and operating the country’s first nuclear power plant.[10] The plant, currently under construction in Akkuyu, will depend heavily on Russian training and waste management for years to come. Furthermore, construction of the TurkStream pipeline is underway by Russia’s Gazprom and will significantly increase Turkey’s dependency upon Russia for natural gas.[11]

Russian President Vladimir Putin also considers Erdogan’s partnership in Syria as critical for preserving Russia’s interests in the region. According to Putin, Turkey has a vital role to play in military coordination with Russia to resolve the conflict in Syria, as “Moscow and Ankara are making a decisive contribution to fighting terrorism in Syria and advancing the process of political settlement in that country.”[12] Putin convened talks in February with Erdogan, whose government has supported Syrian rebel groups, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has joined Putin in supporting Bashar al Assad’s regime.

The problem of withholding

The reality is that Ankara and the Kremlin are resolved to proceed with the sale of the S-400 systems with or without American approval. However, providing the American Patriot systems to Turkey with the simultaneous acquisition of Russia’s S-400 systems helps to diffuse the Kremlin’s concern that Western interests threaten its own. Actively demonstrating that the United States is not attempting to drive Russia “into some kind of corner,” as President Putin claims, and is instead seeking Russian cooperation to guarantee security and stability in Eastern Europe, will significantly increase the likelihood of Russia returning to INF compliance. Conversely, forcing Turkey to choose between an ally and a strategic partner risks Turkey’s national security by antagonizing the great power in the region and it further solidifies the Kremlin’s suspicions that American and Russian interests are inherently opposed. Thus, providing Turkey with the Patriot systems while refraining from prohibiting the purchase of the S-400 will result in an environment much more conducive for negotiation and positive exchange between the United States and Russia. Furthermore, demonstrating Westerns interests in Russia’s near abroad as non-antagonistic toward its security, decreases Russia’s need to compensate for perceived vulnerabilities.

Challenges to the theory

Two challenges exist for the inducement of perceived security and demonstrating to Russia the absence of intentions by the United States and NATO to operate offensively without provocation in order to bring Russia into INF compliance: the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and acceptable risk.

The Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (or CAATSA) signed by President Donald Trump is intended to deter subversion and destabilization efforts by Iran, North Korea, and Russia via the sale of defensive capabilities. However, by the President’s own acknowledgement, the CAATSA significantly inhibits the Executive Branch’s flexibility to negotiate with these three states on the subjects of intelligence and defense.[13] Members of the American Congress argue that Turkey’s plans to purchase the Russian S-400 systems prompts the imposition of sanctions and the Department of Defense has issued a warning of “grave consequences” to the Turkish government for proceeding with the purchase.[14]

The second challenge lies in the acceptable risk of allowing the sale of the S-400 to Turkey while potentially exposing technology used for American national security to Russia as a partner in Turkish defense. While testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Curtis Scaparrotti who is currently serving as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, indicated that the technology of the American F-35 joint strike fighter would be specifically vulnerable to Russia.[15] Turkey is planning to purchase one hundred F-35s as Turkish companies contribute to the production of their center fuselage and cockpit display. However, it is critical to remember that Russia is also rendering its own technology vulnerable to the United States and NATO with the sale of the S-400 to Turkey. While the American Patriot systems accommodate only one type of interceptor missile, the Russian S-400 supports the 40N6E-series (400 km), the 48N6 (250 km), the 9M96e2 (120 km) and the 9m96e (40 km).[16] The vulnerability we create by selling our systems to Turkey is matched by the valuable intelligence we gain on the Russian defense systems if we maintain positive relations with Turkey.

Conclusion and prospects

Last year, the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, Luke Coffey, published a solution of similar controversy and risk as that presented in this report that would admit the Republic of Georgia into NATO without instigating war with Russia.[17] Coffey’s theory to amend NATO’s Article 6 to exclude occupied territories does not entirely eliminate the risk of conflict. However, risk cannot be entirely eliminated when operating with human factors and offensive and defensive capabilities. There is always an inherent risk of conflict. Thus, the aim of this report and of Coffey’s has been to significantly reduce the inherent risk in relations between the United States and Russia as the INF Treaty faces its collapse. Turkey has found itself caught between its two most significant partners and is unlikely to produce a positive outcome for all parties while under pressure simultaneously by the United States and Russia. Ankara is panicking since rejecting Moscow’s offer will deteriorate Russo-Turkish security relations (a significant factor given Turkey’s close proximity to Russia) while opposing Washington will sacrifice incentives for support by NATO and jeopardize Turkey’s purchase of the F-35s in addition to the Patriot systems. The only solution for a positive outcome in this crisis is for the United States to propose an alternative solution by allowing Turkey to purchase the S-400 systems from Russia which will induce the narrative that a NATO member state does not inherently threaten Russian national security interests. The protection of American national security interests requires Russia’s cooperation to avoid a renewed arms race instigated by the collapse of the INF. By bargaining for a stable security environment in which Russo-Turkish defense relations can coincide with American-Turkish relations, Russia will decrease and potentially halt development of the 9M729. Ensuring Ankara is willing to cooperate with Moscow instead of exhibiting exclusivity with NATO and the United States decreases security risks as it assures Putin that NATO member states are not inherently anti-Russian. Encouraging this narrative is critical if the United States seeks to reduce the risk of enhanced Russian missile defense and increase the likelihood of a recommitment to the INF.

Anna J. Davidson is a scholar and researcher of foreign policy, defense capabilities, and security alliances with a regional concentration on Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is Senior Editor for Russian and East European Affairs with The International Scholar, and Contributor with Global Security Review and Foreign Policy Research Institute’s BMB Russia. Anna is affiliated with the Russian and East European Studies Programme at Oxford University, Associate Member of Keble College, Oxford, and selected for graduate studies with St. Antony’s College, Oxford. She is also a summa cum laude graduate of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia in the United States with professional experience in the South Caucasus, Central America, and Western Europe. JPR Status: Working Paper.

[1] The Kremlin. “Executive Order summary Russia’s compliance with the USSR-US INF Treaty,” The Kremlin. 4 March 2019.

[2] Pompeo, Mike. “Press Statement: U.S. Intent To Withdraw from the INF Treaty February 2, 2019,” Department of State. 2 February 2019.

[3] Putin, Vladimir. “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” The Kremlin. 10 February 2007.

[4] Putin, Vladimir. “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy,” The Kremlin. 10 February 2007.

[5] Heritage, Timothy. “Georgia started war with Russia: EU-backed report,” Reuters. 30 September 2009.

[6] Kramer, Andrew E. “Russia Calls New U.S. Missile Defense System a ‘Direct Threat,’” The New York Times. 12 May 2016.

[7] Coats, Dan. “Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on

Russia’s INF Treaty Violation.” Director of National Intelligence. 30 November 2018.

[8] Pence, Mike. “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the 2019 Munich Security Conference,” The White House. 16 February 2019.

[9] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Erdogan Says No Intention Of Backing Out Of S-400 Missile Deal With Russia,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 7 March 2019.

[10] Davidson, Anna J. “Da Svidaniya, Chernobyl: Russian economic statecraft in Turkey and Belarus,” Foreign Policy Research Institute’s BMB Russia. 6 February 2019.

[11] Pierini, Mark. “Russia’s Gas Strategy Gets Help From Turkey,” Carnegie Europe. 3 December 2018.

[12] Putin, Vladimir. “New year greetings to heads of state and government,” The Kremlin. 30 December 2018.

[13] Trump, Donald J. “Statement by President Donald J. Trump on Signing the ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,’” The White House. 2 August 2017.

[14] Bobb, Carla. “US Warns Turkey of Consequences Over S-400 Spat,” VOAnews

[15] Mehta, Aaron and Joe Gould. “Top US general in Europe: Don’t give Turkey F-35 if they buy Russian system,” Defense News. 5 March 2019.

[16] Bryen, Stephen. “Russia’s S-400 Is Way More Dangerous Than You Think,” The National Interest. 18 January 2018.

[17] Coffey, Luke. “How to Admit Georgia to NATO — Without Triggering a War,” The Heritage Foundation. 1 June 2018.