In 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in order to halt the arms race in missiles with which the United States and NATO could strike the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union could strike Europe. Recently, the United States had been complaining that Russia was in violation of the treaty. Then in late July the United States went on the record with that accusation and, as Greg Thielmann reports at Arms Control NOW, accused Russia of testing an intermediate-range cruise missile.

The Russia action at issue could conceivably have been a technical violation, such as the use of a ground-launched cruise missile launcher for a sea-launched cruise missile flight-test, or a flight-test range overage, infringing on the 500 km range limit for treaty-permitted systems. The military significance of such actions would be less weighty than a blatant step toward development of a system similar to [those banned in the treaty].

But if the United States is trying to catch Russia in violation on a technicality, two can play this game. Turns out that the United States may be in violation as well. Thielmann again:

Whatever the nature of the Russian actions prompting the U.S. charge, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s August 1 response included three “serious concerns” of its own about the “liberties” taken by the United States in applying the terms of the treaty:

U.S. use in missile defense tests of target missiles, “which have similar characteristics to intermediate-range missiles;”

U.S. use of armed drones, which are “covered by the definition of ground-launched cruise missiles in the Treaty;” and

U.S. intention to deploy in Poland and Romania Mk-41 launch systems, which “can be used to launch intermediate-range cruise missiles.” [Also part of missile defense.]

Thielmann explains that

U.S. use of intermediate-range target missiles in ballistic missile defense testing is probably the least serious of Moscow’s stated concerns. These target missiles have never been “flight-tested or deployed for weapons delivery,”

But …

The second charge is somewhat more difficult to dismiss, particularly as the range-payload and utilization of armed drones (“unmanned combat aerial vehicles”) is increasing rapidly. Even though such drones do not seem to be optimized for nuclear-delivery missions, evolving drone technology could soon reach the point where the … payload criterion for nuclear-weapons delivery capability is met.

Also …

Drones are consistent with the INF Treaty’s basic definition “cruise missile:” “an unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path.”

However …

… it is not “launched” from a ground-launched cruise missile launcher as defined by the treaty, but “takes off” and returns like a manned aircraft. Such aircraft are not limited by the INF treaty. It is thus a stretch to equate the two categories, an equation that cannot be justified by the letter of the treaty.

But …

The third issue raised by Moscow—the U.S. intention to deploy Mk-41 launchers for SM-3 missile defense interceptors in Romania and Poland, which Moscow labels “quite notorious”—may not be as spurious as it appears at first glance.

Thus …

…  it would seem that the Russians have a prima facie case to make that the deployments of these launchers to bases for U.S. SM-3 interceptors in Romania and Poland would also provide NATO with a potential ground-launched cruise missile capability that is prohibited under the INF Treaty.

This is not to say that the United States should refrain from pointing out Russian violations of treaties. To the contrary, the United States itself should not be developing and deploying systems that either outright violate outright or skirt violating treaties. Especially if they’re as ineffective money pits such as missile defense.