The United States has called for a special meeting with Russia over alleged violations of a landmark Cold War-era arms-control treaty, a policy reversal that echoes deepening U.S. fears about Moscow's intentions.
The planned meeting of the Special Verification Commission, scheduled in the near future, focuses new attention on concerns about the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF).
The treaty, which bans testing, producing, and possessing ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 to 5,500 kilometers, eliminated an entire class of missiles from Europe, and set up an extensive system of verification and compliance. The agreement was considered crucial in the thaw between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Developing missile system
Two years ago, the United States first asserted that Russia was in violation of the treaty, by developing a missile system that fell within the INF prohibitions. Moscow denied the allegations, and later charged that U.S.-led efforts to install elements of a missile-defense system in Europe were in fact prohibited by the INF.
Since then, U.S. officials have pressed Russia on the alleged violations; at one point, President Barack Obama raised the issue directly with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Last year, Rose Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. arms-control negotiator, warned that Russia risked provoking "military and economic countermeasures" if it continued to stonewall the INF issue.
And in December, a leading Pentagon official told Congress that Russia’s alleged treaty violations, and other actions in Europe and elsewhere, had prompted Washington to develop a "comprehensive response to Russian military actions."
The INF set up the Special Verification Commission (SVC) as a way to deal with disputes surrounding the treaty. Many arms-control experts have called on the U.S. administration to request an SVC meeting to air the alleged INF violations. The last time such a meeting was convened was in 2003.
Identifying missile system
But Gottemoeller told RFE/RL that an SVC meeting would not be helpful, because she said the United States had given adequate information to the Russians, identifying the missile-system question.
"When one side categorically denies the very existence of a ground-launched cruise missile that violates the treaty, then there's little prospect that an SVC request [would] result in a desired outcome," she said in the interview last year.
A U.S. government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed to RFE/RL on October 19 that the Americans had in fact recently requested an SVC meeting with the Russians. Other ex-Soviet republics that are also party to the treaty -- Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan -- were also scheduled to attend.
The official declined to say exactly what prompted the reversal in U.S. position, citing classified intelligence information.
However, The New York Times reported on October 19 that U.S. intelligence had concluded Russia was moving ahead with a program to produce a ground-launched cruise missile, and producing more missiles than are needed to sustain a flight-test program.
That has led to fears by U.S. officials that Russia might be moving to deploy INF-prohibited missiles, the Times reported.
Earlier this month, NATO reported that Russia had moved a formidable, highly sophisticated ballistic-missile system known as the Iskander to the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad. The missile's range puts cities like Warsaw potentially at risk.
Some U.S. arms-control experts have speculated that the Iskander system might in fact be the focus of U.S. intelligence fears on the INF violations, though U.S. officials have refused to comment.