WASHINGTON — The United States has concluded that Russia violated a landmark arms-control treaty by testing a prohibited ground-launched cruise missile, according to senior US officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Obama to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in a letter Monday.
It is the most serious allegation of an arms-control treaty violation that the Obama administration has leveled 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 J. 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 300 to 3,400 miles.
That accord, which was signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who was then the Soviet leader, helped seal the end of the Cold War and has been regarded as a cornerstone of US 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 US 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.
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 Obama’s national security adviser, the defense 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 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,” that report will say.
In his letter to Putin, Obama underscored his interest in a high-level dialogue with Moscow with the aim of preserving the 1987 treaty and discussing steps the Kremlin might take to come back into compliance. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a similar message in a phone call to Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.
Obama has determined that the United States will not retaliate against the Russians by violating the treaty and deploying its own prohibited medium-range system, officials said. So the responses might include deploying sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles, which would be an allowable response under the accord.