The Role of Verification in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty Dispute

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is about to pass into oblivion. But its verification provisions merit further attention, both as a reflection on lesson learned from the past, but also as indicators for the future.

At the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on 8 December 1987, US President Ronald Reagan decided to give his Russian a try. ‘Doveray no proveray’, the president noted in his spoken remarks, translating the Russian proverb into English: ‘trust but verify’. ‘You repeat that at every meeting’ pointed out his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. The friendly exchange elicited a round of laughter from the room.

President Reagan’s remarks of ‘trust but verify’ highlighted both the significance of the treaty as an important diplomatic achievement, as well as the unprecedented level of verification that would be required for a treaty eliminating an entire class of weapons from the arsenals of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. The INF outlines one of the most extensive verification regimes of any arms treaty to this day. Yet, 30 years later, the lighthearted exchange between the two Cold War leaders seems more cautionary than endearing.

A Verification Regime Cut Short

This significant commitment to verification makes the current situation all the more frustrating. Since 2014, the US has been accusing Russia of violating the terms of the INF, asserting that Moscow has developed and deployed a ground-launched missile whose range capability falls between 500km and 5,500km and is thus prohibited by the treaty. On 4 December 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a 60-day ultimatum for Russia to come back into compliance with its obligations under the INF treaty before Washington would commence the formal process for withdrawing from the treaty. Russia has in turn denied all accusations of a treaty violation and has presented its own concerns over US non-compliance.

This exercise in finger-pointing has highlighted the gaps in the INF’s verification mechanisms – namely, the lack of any established process within the treaty for regular or challenge (carried out on short notice and in response to a particular concern) on-site inspections past the first 13 years of the treaty (the time limit on inspections established in Article XI of the treaty). The INF lays out in great length the necessary definitions, protocols and processes for extensive verification of the elimination of short- and intermediate-range ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. However, once these verification provisions expired in 2001, monitoring of treaty compliance defaulted to the use by treaty parties of national technical means of inspection – namely, satellite observation. And while the treaty also establishes a Special Verification Committee (SVC) to act as a forum for the parties to resolve compliance disagreements, the SVC does not conduct regular inspections, nor was it granted any clearly defined protocols for whether, when and how a challenge inspection could be called for and carried out.

The lack of regular inspections or any established challenge on-site inspection mechanisms are a great detriment to the INF Treaty. In the case of the current dispute, this verification gap precluded the possibility of identifying and investigating the Russian violation in a timely, rigorous and impartial manner.

If a clear mechanism existed to conduct an immediate and thorough on-site inspection of the violation, Moscow would have had little room to deny its non-compliance and drag out the dispute long enough to further develop and ultimately deploy the missiles in question. US suspicions first arose in 2013; yet, it took until 2014 for Washington to publicly accuse Moscow of violating the treaty, during which time US concerns were presented to the Russians in private. Had an on-site inspection been carried out within that first year, it is possible that the disagreement could have been managed quickly, without a public airing of grievances, and without the current politicisation of the issue which has raised the stakes for both Moscow and Washington.

Making the Best of It

Some have suggested that the SVC be used to resolve the disagreement, or to agree on a process for a mutual challenge inspection. Considering the lack of progress on a diplomatic resolution of the impasse – according to the US Department of State, between the time that the violation arose and November 2018, the US and Russia had had thirty separate engagements on the INF question, including two meetings of the SVC – it is unlikely that talk alone will resolve the issue. As for conducting mutual challenge inspections, the SVC can and should be the forum where such a mechanism is negotiated. However, articulating the process for a challenge inspection five years after concerns were first raised, and with the clock ticking on a US withdrawal from the treaty, is too little, too late. The likelihood of agreeing on a thorough and fair inspection at this point seems rather fantastical.

Despite this, publicly proposing to undertake a mutual challenge inspection is still worthwhile for Washington to do. If the violation was a genuine difference in the interpretation of some of the treaty’s provisions by the two sides, and if there is any desire on the part of Russia to come back into compliance, a challenge inspection would allow for the two parties to have an open discussion and potentially clarify the terms in a memorandum of understanding. An on-site inspection and voluntary exchange of data would be particularly helpful if there have been any sensitivities about providing Moscow with detailed evidence of the violation at the risk of disclosing sources and methods. Alternatively, the challenge inspection could provide Russia with the cover it needs to unilaterally claim that it had misunderstood the US interpretation of the treaty, and to come back into compliance without losing face – likely for an under-the-table US concession elsewhere.

However, the more probable scenario is that Russia has no intention of returning to compliance, and that there is nothing left to discuss, resolve or verify. In that case, Moscow would find a way to obfuscate any damning evidence even in a challenge inspection, or to deny the verification altogether on grounds that the US is seeking excessive access to Russian military technology. As the proposed evaluation would be mutual, and the US would be granting Russia access to its own weapons systems, Moscow’s case would be a weak one. This scenario would not resolve the current dispute, but would at least allow Washington to openly point to a clear instance of Russian obstruction, and to take some steam out of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine once the treaty goes under.

Planning Ahead

What remains to be seen is what conclusions future disarmament negotiators and policymakers will draw from the INF Treaty’s fate. Recent discussions on the potential for denuclearisation negotiations with North Korea make this a particularly timely reminder of the importance of prioritising a robust verification regime. Ensuring that clear provisions are defined for conducting regular and challenge on-site inspections for the entire duration of a disarmament or non-proliferation treaty is a critical component of the treaty’s sustainability. This may necessitate the conclusion of time-limited treaties in the future. While not ideal, such agreements would mean that neither party is left to stake its security on trust alone.

At the same time, where no political will exists to comply with treaty obligations or to resolve compliance issues as they arise, no amount of inspections will help. The precarious future of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) may end up being an unfortunate example of this. Treaties – particularly ones on matters of security or defence – must first and foremost be built on a foundation of trust; a strong verification regime is a backstop for times when that trust may come to be in short supply. Hoping that disputes over compliance can be negotiated away when tensions are already running high and fingers are being pointed is wishful thinking. Ultimately, the ‘trust but verify’ equation must be taken as a single whole and must be taken to heart. Perhaps Reagan did not recite it at meetings often enough.

Darya Dolzikova is a Counter-Proliferation Finance Research Analyst in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy programme at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution. 


Darya Dolzikova​

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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