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 U.S. officials, a finding that was conveyed by President Barack Obama to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin 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 President 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 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 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 Sunday phone call to Sergey V. 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 small and easily concealed, obtaining complete confidence that the weapons have been eliminated might be difficult.
NATO's top commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, has said the violation requires a response if it cannot be resolved.
"A weapon capability that violates the INF, that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with," he said in an interview in April. "It can't go unanswered." 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 under the accord.
Republican lawmakers have repeatedly criticized the administration for dragging its feet on the issue. Gottemoeller, the State Department official, has had no discussions with her Russian counterparts on the subject since February. And Kerry's Sunday call was the first time he has directly raised the violation with Lavrov, State Department officials said. Administration officials said the upheaval in Ukraine pushed the issue to the back burner and that the downturn in American-Russia relations has led to an interruption of regular meetings on arms control.
The prospects for resolving the violation are also uncertain at best. After Gottemoeller first raised the matter in 2013, Russian officials said that they had looked into the matter and consider the issue to be closed.
The Russians have also raised their own allegations, a move that U.S. officials believe it is intended to muddy the issue and perhaps give them leverage in any negotiations over compliance. One month after Gottemoeller raised the U.S. concerns about the testing of the ground launched cruise missile, the Russians responded by pointing to U.S. plans to base the Aegis missile system in Romania.
The Aegis system, which is commonly used on warships, would be used to protect U.S. and NATO forces from missile attacks. But the Russians have alleged that it could be used to fire prohibited cruise missiles.
When Kerry spoke with Lavrov on Sunday, the Russian foreign minister cited Russia's concerns over "decoys." That may have been a reference to Russian charges that the targets the United States uses in anti-missile tests are an INF Treaty violation. U.S. officials regard that allegation, about the issue of the Aegis system and complaints about the use of targets, to be spurious.
An underlying concern of the Obama administration in dealing with the Russians is that the Kremlin may not be wedded to the INF agreement. During the George W. Bush administration, some Russians officials argued that the treaty should be dropped so the Kremlin could develop its military capabilities to deal with threats on its periphery including China and Pakistan.
In a June 2013 meeting with Russian defense industry officials, Putin described Gorbachev's decision to sign the accord as "debatable to say the least," but asserted that Russia would uphold the agreement. Even some conservative analysts say that in pursing the compliance concern the United States should not provide the Kremlin with an opportunity to back out of the agreement.
"For the United States to declare that we are pulling out of the treaty in response to what Russia has done would actually be welcome in Moscow because they are wrestling with the question of how they terminate," Stephen Rademaker, a former Bush administration official, told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
"We shouldn't make it any easier for them," he added. "We should force them to take the onus of that."