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Is Russia Fulfilling Its International Treaty Obligations, as Putin Claims?

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Russian President

“As we create advanced weapons systems, we strictly follow the international obligations that Russia has taken upon itself.”

Russian actions speak otherwise

In a meeting with Russian generals and defense industry representatives in Sochi on November 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin said “we strictly follow” Russia’s international obligations, an apparent inference to international military treaties.

But a fact check shows that Russia, without going through a formal withdrawal procedure, has suspended the implementation of some key international agreements, including the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe.

That treaty, signed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries in 1990, sought to limit levels of conventional forces in Europe, such as heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and military aircraft. It put in place a monitoring mechanism on the size, number and capabilities of military hardware.

Putin announced in 2007 his intent to “suspend implementation” of the CFE Treaty and, within a month, the Russian parliament approved his request. The treaty, however, has no provision for “suspension,” offering only a mechanism for withdrawal.

Russia also violated one of the CFE Treaty’s guiding principles, which calls on members to refrain “from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and used military force to set up annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Respect for nations’ territorial integrity and political independence is also one of the main principles of the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997, also signed by Russia.

U.S. administrations and Congressional leaders have frequently criticized what they say are Russian violations of treaties.

The U.S. State Department raised concerns about Russia’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The U.S. says Russia for multiple years has violated the principle that the parties should “not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” The U.S. Department of Defense has a similar claim.

In testimony before the U.S. Congress, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian McKeon said that “the evidence is conclusive. Russia has tested this ground-based system well into the ranges covered by the INF Treaty. We are talking about a real system and not a potential capability.”

McKeon said that the U.S. is also concerned about “Russian adherence to several other arms control treaties.”

One of them is the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows for observational overflights of 34 nations which signed the agreement.

Russia, however, has denied several requests for overflights under the treaty, including “over Chechnya and nearby areas of southwestern Russia; […] and along the border of Russia with the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” according to the U.S. State Department.

Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker told that “although Russia has not formally ‘withdrawn’ from existing treaties and agreements, it has repeatedly violated them or – in the case of CFE – ‘suspended implementation,’ which is really a euphemism for intentionally violating the treaty.”

But in his speech to the generals on November 18, Putin said it is the U.S. which does not adhere to its agreements.

“But some other nations, as we all know, cancel previous agreements,” he said. “As was the case with anti-ballistic missile defense.”

Putin was referring to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

But that move was legal and in accordance with the terms of the treaty, Volker said.

President George W. Bush sent the withdrawal notice to Russia in December 2001, three months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which President Bush defined as an “extraordinary event.”

“I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks,” Bush said.

Volker told “The U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was conducted completely in compliance with the rules of the treaty itself. The U.S. gave proper six month’s notice, and gave a justification for why things had changed and why this step was necessary. And even beyond that, the United States reached out to Russia to create a new nuclear arms agreement -- the Moscow Treaty -- and sought to expand NATO cooperation with Russia through an enhanced NATO-Russia Council.”