How will Russia respond to Trump’s INF termination?

Radoslav Yordanov

The ‘Good Defeats Evil’ Sculpture on the ground of the United Nations in New York depicts George slaying a dragon. The dragon was created from the Soviet SS-20 missiles and US Pershing missiles that were destroyed because of the INF treaty. Image credit: Al_HikesAZ via Flickr.

On 2 August 2019, the Russian foreign ministry officially confirmed the termination of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) at the United States’ insistence. Washington had announced its intention to withdraw from the INF treaty in February, stating that Russia’s new SSC-8 or 9M729 missile had a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres and had thus broken the terms of the treaty. While this is not the first time the US and Russia have accused each other of breaching the treaty, this time President Donald Trump presented the Russians with an ultimatum to either return to compliance or see the US withdraw from the treaty.

In response, President Vladimir Putin immediately warned the US that Moscow would not be averse to launching reciprocal measures to the US’ potential stationing of new nuclear missiles closer to Russia. This was reiterated in late June, when the Deputy Foreign Minister and head of the Russian delegation to the Russian­–US consultations on strategic stability Sergei Ryabkov claimed that US deployment of land-based missile systems near Russia’s borders could lead to a stand-off comparable to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Ryabkov added to this in a July speech before the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament, by explicitly noting that if the US was to deploy further missiles in Europe, Russia would take measures that would create a similar degree of threat to Washington in the Caribbean, helped by Venezuela and Cuba.

The formal withdrawal of both signatories from the landmark treaty then appears to be a bellwether, signalling a worsening of the international political climate — just as its signing in December 1987 foretold the end of the Cold War. That said, the importance of the INF treaty’s dismantling for the twenty-first century international security infrastructure should not be overestimated. The new Russian hypersonic Zircon missile, capable of travelling at speeds of about nine Machs, would defeat the purpose of stationing American ground-to-air missiles near the Russian border. However, US withdrawal from the treaty is an important and symbolic carte blanche in the hands of the Russians to try and exert psychological pressure on Washington, and the international community, by striking a painful nerve revoking the memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I suggest that there are two core ways in which Russia will do this, both relying heavily on its longstanding relationships with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Frosty relations in Cuban waters

In mid-June, as part of a demonstration tour around the globe, the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov arrived at Havana’s cruise terminal. It was the most powerful Russian vessel to present itself in Cuban waters since the end of the Cold War. Warry of the presence of the most advanced surface vessel in the Russian fleet so close to its borders, the US Northern Command dispatched the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Jason Dunham, to keep the Russian manoeuvres in check. The call came only ten days after the same port saw the last American cruises leave the facility following Trump’s decision to ban US cruise ships from visiting the Caribbean island. This move was intended to be a major blow against Cuban tourism and one I discussed in a previous post on the International Affairs blog. The Admiral Gorshkov visit also came at a time of notable deterioration in the US–Russian relations, which according to President Putin’s early June statement were ‘getting worse by the hour’.

This move by the Russian navy demonstrates the turning-point that the US’ decision created as Russia now appears to be increasingly confident in and comfortable with showing force near the US borders. In fact, according to the head of the National Association of Reserve Officers Major General Vladimir Bogatyrev, Russia now has the ‘legal grounds’ to dispatch its submarines and ships with medium and shorter-range missiles in ‘relative proximity to the US borders’ given the weapons the US has tested since they left the INF treaty. This showing of strength is then likely to continue in the post-INF world, particularly in reference to Cuba given its place in the US’ national consciousness.

Bases and buildup

Next to this, many arms control advocates have suggested that the US decision to leave the INF increases the risk of a buildup of nuclear and conventional missiles along Russia’s border with eastern Europe — potentially undermining Europe’s security. However, statements from high-ranking Russian military officials suggest that the importance of the nuclear missile pact’s termination goes beyond the confines of the European continent. The chair of the Duma’s defense committee Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov maintained that Moscow was seriously considering establishing a military base in Cuba in response to United States’ withdrawal from the INF. Shamanov’s deputy, Alexander Sherin, expressed similar opinion considering it feasible for Moscow to negotiate base rights with Venezuela. Sherin also struck a defiant stance, conceding that while such move could lead to a new missile crisis, just like in 1962, that a potential new escalation of tension so close to the US border may also prompt Washington to ‘behave more accurately’.

While most Russian generals speak vaguely about involving Cuba and Venezuela, others suggest more concrete steps to this effect involving the revival of the Russian reconnaissance centre in Lourdes. Built in 1964 and located on the outskirts of Havana, signal intelligence (SIGINT) gathering centre was collecting up to 70 per cent of strategic intelligence information on the US until Putin ordered its closure in 2002. The reopening of SIGINT has been a notable point in the negotiations between Havana and Moscow, with numerous accounts sending conflicting signals regarding its potential revival. In June, the Cuban Ambassador to Moscow Gerardo Peñalver Portal said his country was not discussing the possibility of a Russian base on the island with Moscow. However, Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin noted that Lourdes’ reopening could be ‘a matter of several months’ as it was in ‘working condition’, despite lacking some equipment. Next to this, Major General Vladimir Bogatyrev, an Afghanistan and Chechnya veteran, spoke in late August of the possibility of Moscow eventually deploying Russian strategic aviation on Venezuela’s La Orchila island.

These statements do not demonstrate a decisive Russian plan as of yet. However, when taken in addition to the agreement between Russia and Nicaragua on a simplified procedure for the entry of Russian warships into Nicaraguan ports as well as Cuba’s repeatedly expressed desire to continue its cooperation with Moscow in the naval sphere, this does outline a range of possibilities for the Russian military’s return to the western hemisphere. One that seems significantly more likely now that Russia has been emboldened by the end of the INF.

Conclusion

With Venezuela and Nicaragua in turmoil, and Cuba under increased American pressure, Moscow appears adamant to use these dynamics in order to exploit the end of the INF to its benefit. Whether this gambit, aimed at short-term political gains, would have any negative repercussions in the long term depends as much as on the outcome of the next US presidential elections as on the state of affairs of the targeted nations, whose present vulnerability makes them an easy prey for Russian military propaganda. What is clear though is that the US has left the door wide open for Russia to win the narrative on the dissolution of the INF as well as to gain more influence on the US’ doorstep.

Radoslav Yordanov is a Centre Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

His recent review essay, ‘Conflicting visions? Cuba in the eyes of a Soviet spy and an American diplomat’, was published in the July 2019 issue of International Affairs.

His previous blogpost for the International Affairs blog was titled ‘Where next for Cuba after Trump’s cruise ship blockade?’.

Read his review essay online here.

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