The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior U.S. officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a letter Monday.
It is the most serious allegation of an arms control treaty violation that the Obama administration has levelled against Russia, and adds another dispute to a relationship already burdened by tensions over the Kremlin's support for separatists in Ukraine and its decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.
At the heart of the issue is the 1987 treaty that bans medium-range missiles, which are defined as ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles capable of flying 500 to 5,500 kilometres. That accord, which was signed by then-president Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then the Soviet leader, helped seal the end of the Cold War and has been regarded as a cornerstone of U.S. and Russian arms control efforts. Obama administration officials concluded by the end of 2011 that the cruise-missile test was a compliance concern, officials have said. Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department's senior arms-control official, first raised the violation concern with Russian officials in May, 2013.
In January, The New York Times reported that U.S. officials had informed NATO allies that Russia had tested a ground-launched cruise missile, raising serious concerns about Russia's compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF Treaty, as it is commonly called. The State Department said at the time that the issue was under review and that the Obama administration was not yet ready to formally declare it a treaty violation.
In recent months, however, the issue has been taken up by top-level officials, including a meeting this month of the Principals Committee, a cabinet-level body that includes Mr. Obama's national security adviser, the defence secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Senior officials said the President's most senior advisers unanimously agreed that the test was a serious violation, and the allegation will be made public soon in the State Department's annual report on international compliance with arms control agreements.
"The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce or flight test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometres to 5,500 kilometres or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles," that report will say.
In his letter to Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama underscored his interest in a high-level dialogue with Moscow with the aim of preserving the 1987 treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a similar message in a Sunday phone call to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister.
Because the treaty proscribes testing ground-launched cruise missiles of medium range, the Kremlin cannot undo the violation. But administration officials do not believe the cruise missile has been deployed and say there are measures the Russians can take to ameliorate the problem.
Administration officials declined to say what such steps might be, but arms-control experts say they could include a promise not to deploy the system and inspections to demonstrate that the cruise missiles and their launchers have been destroyed. Because the missiles are easily concealed, obtaining complete confidence that the weapons have been eliminated might be difficult.