The Problem With Russia's Missiles

Why is the United States taking Moscow to task over noncompliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty?

The State Department's annual "Compliance Report" is about to drop. According to Michael Gordon at the New York Times, the State Department will accuse the Russians of cheating on the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Gordon even has the money sentence:

"The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. treaty not to possess, produce or flight test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles."

Gordon's story is part of a formal rollout. Secretary of State John Kerry gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a courtesy call on Sunday, and the U.S. Embassy delivered a letter from President Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin.

Let's get this out of the way first: The decision to accuse Russia in print of violating the 1987 INF Treaty is not about Ukraine. Putin certainly hasn't done himself any favors in recent months, of course, but American concerns about Russia's compliance have been building for a long time. Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, began raising the issue of INF compliance with the Russians more than a year ago, in May 2013. After failing to get satisfaction from Moscow, she briefed the NATO Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation Committee on the compliance issues in January 2014. As early as this spring, it was clear that there was a possibility of using State's annual Compliance Report to make public the concerns that U.S. diplomats had expressed in private. I argued in April that, given the mounting evidence, it was time to let the Russians have it.

And now it is that time of year. The Compliance Report is due every year on April 15, but congressionally mandated reports are always late. August is actually pretty early. Recall that the Bush administration didn't even bother to submit a compliance report during six of the eight years it was in office.

The decision to focus on the R-500 cruise missile is interesting. Russia is actually testing two different systems that raise compliance questions -- the R-500 cruise missile and the RS-26 ballistic missile. The Obama administration, according to Gordon, has decided to make an issue of Russia's R-500 cruise missile, developed for the Iskander tactical missile system. Although this cruise missile has a stated range of 500 kilometers, Russian officials have been clear that they could easily extend the range beyond the 500 km limit imposed by the INF treaty. According to Gordon's January 2014 story, Gottemoeller told NATO allies that Russia had tested the R-500 to ranges beyond 500 km. (Gordon doesn't report what the U.S. intelligence community believes the actual range is in either story.)

The Obama administration appears to have focused on the R-500 for two reasons: It is easier to prove and may be easier to solve. First, of the two issues, the R-500 is apparently the more blatant violation. The RS-26, on the other hand, has been referred to as a "circumvention" of the INF in deference to the ambiguity of its status. (Russia asserts that the RS-26 is an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, to be counted under the New START treaty.) So the Obama administration is probably right to start with the more blatant case of cheating.

Second, the White House may believe that Russia is on the verge of moving from testing the prohibited cruise missile to deploying it. Douglas Barrie and Henry Boyd of the International Institute for Strategic Studies recently noted a Russian article that appears to show an R-500 canister on a deployed Iskander. If Russia is indeed on the verge of deploying large numbers of R-500 cruise missiles, now is the time to start talking about it. It's much easier to prevent something with arms control than to roll it back. The Obama administration apparently hopes that pressure now will persuade Russia to forego deployment of the new cruise missile. I wouldn't hold my breath.

But even if the administration is right to start with the R-500, over the long-term the RS-26 might be a bigger threat. A two-stage ballistic missile with multiple nuclear warheads, the RS-26 looks a lot like the SS-20 that prompted the INF discussion in the first place. The R-500 is a serious compliance issue, but it is also probably a conventionally armed missile that may only slightly exceed the range limits set by the INF treaty. The RS-26, on the other hand, is designed to hold Western European capitals at risk of attack with nuclear weapons. While Russia might hint that the RS-26 is intended for China, the reality is that it also seems to designed to threaten NATO forces in Western Europe to deter them from coming to the aid of the alliance's newer members closer to Russia's tender embraces.

Even if the R-500 and RS-26 pose a challenge for NATO, it does not make sense for the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty. It isn't often that I agree with former Bush administration official Stephen Rademaker, but he was exactly right when he testified: "I do not believe the appropriate remedy in this case is for the United States to withdraw from the treaty. Rather, since Russia so clearly wants out, we should make sure that they alone pay the political and diplomatic price of terminating the treaty. But it is also clear that we cannot and should not ignore the violations."

Putting public pressure on Russia is the right strategy, but sometimes the right strategy still falls short. The Russians would like to have intermediate-range nuclear forces, but without taking the political hit for withdrawing from the treaty. Keeping things quiet lets Russia violate the treaty, but without paying any political or diplomatic costs. The Russians hate having to talk about this in public. When Ivo Daalder raised the issue at the Munich Security Conference, Lavrov fumed. Making an issue of Russia's R-500 forces Moscow to choose between its new cruise missile and its propaganda line about the threat from NATO. Russia might ultimately withdraw from the INF treaty anyway, but at least it will be clear who's undermining stability and security in Europe.

Leonidl/Wikimedia Commons


The Hamas Rope-a-Dope

It's going to be a long fight -- but Hamas has weathered the Israeli barrage thus far. And that counts as a win.

As July 27's Israeli air and artillery strikes demonstrate, the deadly confrontation in Gaza is far from over. Cease-fire proposals seem to come and go. But neither side is in the mood for sustainable de-escalation; each believes there is still much to gain from continuing the fight. Or perhaps to be more accurate, both worry about losing an advantage if they call an end to the bloody proceedings.

It's impossible to predict a winner or loser at this stage. Israel is determined to prevent a Hamas victory or even a stalemated outcome that might appear to represent one. The situation is, as they say, remarkably fluid. But three weeks in, if I had to do a tally now, I'd say Hamas has taken round one in what is likely to be an ongoing struggle. And here's why:

Survival counts as a win: As in previous confrontations, the organizational imperative dominates Hamas's tactics and strategy. Against a militarily and technologically superior Israel, Hamas can afford to waste a couple of thousand rockets and lose a few dozen tunnels, but the main goal is keeping both its military and political leadership intact, and not giving into Israel's superior firepower. Indeed, in a way Hamas wins just by not losing.

In previous confrontations, particularly during the Second Intifada, Israel succeeded in eliminating top Hamas officials, including the founder of the organization, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Even in 2008-2009's Operation Cast Lead, Israel managed to kill a few key leaders. This time around -- at least so far -- the organization appears to have weathered the storm with limited loss to its key cadres. In 2008-2009, Hamas lost as many as 600 fighters. We can't be sure of Hamas's losses during the current crisis, but with an estimated 10,000 fighters, even the loss of hundreds is hardly a stunning victory for Israel. Indeed, Hamas fighters exacted a higher price on the Israelis this time around, tripling the number of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) casualties than in both previous confrontations combined.

Israel's nerves are rattled: Of all Israel's achievements so far in Operation Protective Edge, the success of Iron Dome has to be the most significant. Hamas's vaunted arsenal of high-trajectory weapons has failed to cause significant casualties or fundamentally shut down normal life in most of the country -- as opposed to Hezbollah's missiles in the summer of 2006, which effectively shut down the northern half of the country.

But Hamas has clearly got Israel's attention this time around. By launching rockets of greater range with a daily consistency over a sustained period of time, there has been significant disruption. Governments are responsible not just for the direct physical security of their citizens but for a sense of security and normalcy too. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's temporary suspension on U.S. flights into Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport and its ongoing review of security deeply affected Israel's national morale and pride. Every time there's a siren, it's a reminder that Hamas has reach. Indeed, Hamas doesn't have to kill Israelis to get their attention. It's a classic demonstration of the power of the weak in an asymmetrical conflict.

And here is where the Hamas attack tunnels come into play. Israelis have been dealing with these infiltrations since the early 2000s; after all, the 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit was a tunnel operation. But what the Israelis discovered was a sophistication, reach, and complexity to the tunnel structure that surprised them. That the necessary tools for kidnappings -- handcuffs, tranquilizers, IDF uniforms, and plans for major terrorist attacks -- were discovered there suggest an ambition that should unnerve the Israeli security and intelligence establishment, not to mention the public, particularly those living in communities close to Gaza.

Abbas looks feckless: Once again, Hamas has proved that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to give back most of the West Bank, he'd go see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But for most everything else, you go to Hamas. If you're Israel and you want a cease-fire, you go to Hamas; if you want a prisoner trade, you go to Hamas. If you're Palestinian and you want to feel pride about resisting the Israelis, you root for Hamas -- however much death and destruction it brings down upon your head. All of this tends to weaken Abbas, the good, nonviolent Palestinian who wants to negotiate a peace deal and buck up the bad Palestinians who don't. Abbas may well play some role in post-cease-fire Gaza, or at least he would like to. But in the end, he has very little to show for his presidency. He has not ended the Israeli occupation, created a Palestinian state, isolated Israel, or served as a force to unify Palestinians. Indeed, without some success in the peace process, Abbas is perceived as failing to advance -- or even stand up for -- Palestinian rights. Indeed, his latest speech has him sounding like he endorses Hamas's demands.

Hamas has attained nearly co-equal status: Think about it. A week or so ago, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and half the international community was chasing after Hamas in an effort to get it to agree to a cease-fire and then to include it as a party to the negotiations to deal with the underlying cause of the Gaza confrontation. This alone constitutes a remarkable achievement for a pariah organization that two months ago seemed on the ropes, broke, and pressured by Egypt. In Operation Cast Lead, there were no real negotiations over how to deal with Hamas's demands in Gaza; nor in 2012 after Operation Pillar of Defense. Now it's just possible that Hamas has hooked itself into what could amount to an international process in which it may well play a central role.

This sequel to the long-running Gaza movie is far from over. And there will be many twists and turns in store along the way that might change the score. Israel is trying to marshal support to demilitarize Gaza or at least close tunnels, and to get the Egyptians, backed by the international community, to stanch weapons flows. And unless Hamas can produce real economic gains from the current struggle, its popularity in Gaza will diminish. Despite its demands, Hamas doesn't seem to have much of an endgame. But at least for now, I'd put Hamas in the win column.

The asymmetrical nature of the casualty count and the scenes of suffering in Gaza have quite predictably made the Palestinian narrative more compelling than that of the Israelis in many parts of the globe. And while Hamas may be hurting badly, it's still up and running. On July 27 alone, 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in various Hamas attacks. Indeed, Hamas may well be on its way to validating a depressingly familiar conclusion: If you can't get what you want through phony unity agreements and tough talk, try violence and terror. It doesn't always work. But right now, it sure looks as if it might have.