On November 26, 2018, Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister, held a briefing in Moscow that was devoted to the INF Treaty. As far as I can tell, the briefing was supposed to outline Russia's official position on the INF treaty. Ryabkov made a few interesting statements that seem to add more uncertainty to the dispute about the treaty (although the fate of the treaty seems to be certain at this point - it won't survive).

First of all, Ryabkov strongly rejected U.S. allegations of non-compliance and said that Russia is committed to preserving the treaty (provided that the United States complies with the treaty, he added). On the details of the accusation, Ryabkov largely confirmed what we have already known.

In my view, the most important point made by Ryabkov is that he insisted that Russia hasn't tested the 9M729 missile to the INF range. Moreover, it appears that this is how Russia has built its defense - since the missile hasn't been tested to the prohibited range, it is treaty-compliant. But, unfortunately for Russia, this is not how the letter of the treaty works - for a missile to be in violation it is sufficient that it has the "range capability." And this is exactly what the United States has been saying (in a recent testimony in the Senate, the Pentagon said that Russia tested the missile "well into the ranges covered by the INF Treaty", but I don't trust this statement).

According to Ryabkov, 9M729 is a modification of the 9M728 missile of the Iskander-M system. It was tested to its maximum range at the Kapustin Yar test site on 18 September 2017. In that test the missile flew to the range of "less than 480 km." Interestingly, he said that the modernization "dealt with, first of all, with the missile warhead." This, however, contradicts other data that suggest that the 9M729 is about 1.8 meters longer than 9M728 (so it is a "8-meter missile" similar to Kalibr). But it doesn't rule it out.

Indirectly, Ryabkov confirmed that the United States refer to "range capability" rather than the demonstrated range in its allegations - he said that at some point the United States suggested that the tests were treaty-compliant only because the missile was not fully fueled. To answer that Russia apparently "illuminated specific features of the missile's fuel system that rule out experiments like that." It's hard to tell exactly what this "illumination" involved, though - it is possible that Russia shared some information with the United States, but in general I don't expect that sharing more information would help Russia make its case.

Ryabkov effectively confirmed, although he didn't say it directly, that the United States believes that 9M729 was tested from the Iskander-M launcher (he called it a "universal chassis that is used in a wide range of missile launchers"). This, of course, would make any discussion of returning to compliance extremely difficult.

The bottom line is that we are very much where we were before the briefing. Since Russia hasn't tested the missile to the INF range it believes that it is in compliance or at least that it has plausible deniability. The United States appears to have some pretty solid intelligence data that show that 9M729 has the INF range capability (as I mentioned some time ago, for all we know, the United States has the blueprints of the missile; ironically, this might indeed be the case). But, as a colleague observed, intelligence data cannot be used as a proof for the purposes of the treaty.

I remain convinced that U.S. evidence of the violation is not particularly strong (blueprints notwithstanding). While Russia may be technically in violation, this violation is not nearly as grave as it is portrayed and is definitely not serious enough to warrant dismantlement of the INF treaty

(Ryabkov also described Russia's counteraccusations, but these would warrant a separate post.)