Russia appears to be moving ahead with a program to produce a ground-launched cruise missile despite the Obama administration’s protests that the weapon violates a landmark arms control agreement, according to US officials and lawmakers.
The concern goes beyond those raised by the United States in July 2014, when the Obama administration said that Russia had violated the 1987 treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces by conducting flight tests of the missile.
The INF accord, which was signed by President Reagan and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, bans the two nations from testing, producing, and possessing ground-launched ballistic or cruise missiles that are capable of flying 300 to 3,400 miles.
US officials are now expressing concerns that Russia is producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program, spurring fears that the Kremlin is moving to build a force that could ultimately be deployed.
Information about the Russian program was provided by US officials on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified intelligence assessments.
Two prominent Republican lawmakers have also sent a letter to the White House asserting a deepening violation by Russia, but without providing details.
“The INF Treaty is the only arms control treaty that succeeded in eliminating a class of nuclear arms,” wrote Representatives Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Committee on Armed Services, and Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “It has become apparent to us that the situation regarding Russia’s violation has worsened and Russia is now in material breach of the treaty.”
The State Department declined to discuss specifics of the issue.
“We do not comment on intelligence matters,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.
After the charge was leveled two years ago, the Russians insisted that the United States provide more information about the allegation, and also responded with their own allegations — including charges that US armed drones violate the INF treaty.
To focus attention on the issue, the United States has called for a rare meeting of the Special Verification Commission, a body that was established by the INF treaty to deal with compliance.
Russia inherited the treaty obligations of the Soviet Union. Other former Soviet states that also are a party to the treaty — Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan — will also send representatives to the meeting of the commission, its first since 2003.
The arms control dispute comes against the background of steadily deteriorating relations, which are already strained over Russian airstrikes on Aleppo, Syria, as well as its seizure of portions of Ukraine. A range of US officials also have accused Russia of meddling in the presidential election by hacking into the e-mail accounts of Democratic Party figures.
But the arms control issues are important in their own right. The INF treaty is regarded as one of the accords that brought an end to the Cold War. The question of Russian compliance threatens to tarnish the White House’s arms control legacy and President Obama’s vision of a world in which there would be fewer nuclear weapons.
Since the INF treaty was signed, some Russian officials appear to have had buyer’s remorse, arguing that Moscow needs more ways to respond to the potential array of threats around its periphery. During the George W. Bush administration, Russia’s defense minister suggested that the two sides drop the treaty.
The Obama administration says that the treaty is in the overall interest of the United States even if some of its provisions are being violated. When the United States charged Russia with violating the accord two years ago, Obama sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin stressing his interest in a high-level dialogue to preserve the treaty and bring the Kremlin back into compliance.
US military officials, for their part, have said that a move by Russia to actually deploy the new missile system, which is small, mobile, and easily concealed, would be significant. When he served as NATO’s top commander in 2014, General Philip M. Breedlove said that “a weapons capability” that violates the INF treaty “can’t go unanswered.”
How best to persuade the Russians to rectify the alleged violation is also a subject of debate.
The Pentagon has produced a list of military steps that could be taken in response, but the White House has yet to approve them. Two years ago, the State Department’s senior arms control official raised the idea of imposing “economic measures,” but sanctions do not appear to be under consideration.
It is unlikely that the verification commission will make progress in resolving the allegation, since the Russians have never acknowledged the existence of the missile, even though US officials say test flights may have begun as early as 2008.