In the midst of his tough speech in Munich on February 10, President Putin said a wise thing: “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law…we increasingly see the desire to resolve a given question according to political expediency…of course this is extremely dangerous.  It results in the fact that no one feels safe…Because no one can feel that international law is like a stone wall that will protect them.” 

Putin openly blamed the United States for this trend, and in doing so he touched a chord with people around the world who have been concerned that, in the era of its global dominance, America’s traditional messianism is getting out of hand.  After all, treaties and other measures of international law have meaning and significance in protecting the global community.  No country should be able to declare itself above that law—lest all countries be tempted to do so. 

Given President Putin’s eloquence on this matter, it is surprising that within a few short days, the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Ivanov , and the Chief of the General Staff, Yury Baluyevsky, publicly called for the Russian Federation to remove itself from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF).  The INF treaty has long been considered one of the signal arms control successes of the Cold War period, resulting in the destruction of thousands of missiles that had confronted each other across the old Warsaw Pace-NATO divide. 

Ivanov and Baluyevsky each had his reasons to declare an end to INF, saying that other countries around the world, and principally in Eurasia, were acquiring such missiles while Russia was constrained from doing so.  Ivanov’s list included North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel.  Baluyevsky, in addition, complained about U.S. deployments of missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, saying that if the Pentagon does not cancel its plans, then Russian withdrawal from INF would become inevitable.  “The world will again begin to slide into an arms race,” he said.

This is a conundrum: On the one hand, President Putin declares himself the champion of international law and urges all countries to return to the negotiating table.  On the other hand, his chief military leaders declare themselves dissatisfied with an important arms control treaty and declare Russia’s right to unilaterally withdraw from it. 

Of course, every country maintains the right to withdraw from a treaty based on its supreme national interests—this is a standard tenet of international law and all countries, for good reason, insist on it.  But this step is generally considered a last resort after all other measures have been exhausted.  Where Russia and the INF treaty is concerned,  other measures have not really been tried. 

If Russia is worried about a complete lack of missiles of intermediate range, for example, one option would be to enter into a negotiation with the United States to agree to an exception to the INF treaty that would permit it to extend the range of one of its existing shorter-range missiles—a simple matter technically for the Russian missile industry.  Of course, in that case Russia would have to bear in mind that the United States would probably want an exception too—such as some intermediate-range missiles against which it could test its missile defense system.  Since Russia is also worried about the maturation of U.S. missile defenses, perhaps that would not be best negotiating trade-off.

Another option would be to seek an international negotiation to bring more countries into a ban on intermediate-range missiles—in effect, turning INF into a multilateral treaty.  A Russian push to multilateralize INF might gain particular currency because of North Korea’s recent missile tests in Northeast Asia.  Because the North Korean test missiles struck close to Russian territory, Russia has a certain moral authority in calling for missile negotiations in the region.  China, for its part, has been playing a responsible role in the six-party negotiations with North Korea, and so for that reason might be disposed to consider Russian proposals.

A third option, which would not exclude the other two, would be to strengthen the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)—the primary international instrument that seeks to constrain exports of missile technologies.  Over the years, this international body has given rise to many disagreements between the United States and Russia, and so naturally it seems a site of greater neuralgia than fruitful consensus.  However, given Russia’s clear concern about the explosion of new medium-range missile capabilities, perhaps it is time for a “new look” at what export controls can achieve.

Finally, Russia’s lack of confidence in U.S. intentions with regard to theater missile defenses must be addressed.  Washington’s top policy voices—Condi Rice, Bob Gates—keep insisting that the system to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic is not a threat to Russia.  Moscow’s top policy voices—Sergei Lavrov, Yury Baluyevsky—say just the opposite. 

Washington is going to have to take some responsibility for this cognitive dissonance, but in the meantime, Russia could make a few specific proposals that would challenge the United States to truly engage on its missile defense concerns.  For example, in 1997 the United States and Russia negotiated some technical measures that both sides agreed would improve Russia’s confidence in the scope and nature of the U.S. national missile defense system.  The measures particularly emphasized a detailed exchange of technical information about U.S. and Russian missile defense programs.  It is time to reexamine these confidence-building measures, which were called the “New York Protocols,” to see if they could be modified to assuage Russia’s concerns about missile defenses in Europe.

These are only a few of the options that Russia might consider before it withdraws from the INF treaty.  If the Kremlin does not at least make an effort to engage and negotiate, then President Putin will have a hard time claiming leadership in restoring the rule of international law. 


 

Rose Gottemoeller is the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. This article first appeared in Russian in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta on March 5, 2007.