It was difficult to expect that the briefing organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense about a month ago would be taken seriously by the commentariat (especially in the United States) and indeed it wasn't. Yes, they didn't show the missile, only the container. The launcher that was demonstrated to participants was not exactly the one that was shown on the slide. And, oh, the horror, no questions were allowed. On top of that, MoD doesn't exactly have a stellar record of keeping its facts straight (to put it very mildly). So there is every reason to be skeptical about anything MoD said.

However, the briefing confirmed what I've been saying all along - this whole discussion needs to be more transparent and the more information we have the better. The briefing prompted the United States to put together a rebuttal of sorts. Of course, this was done in the US tradition - "our secret internal assessment confirmed that [surprise, surprise] we are right, but we will not tell you why and how dare you not to trust the US intelligence community?" This is very much the thrust of the article "U.S. Intelligence: Russia Tried to Con the World With Bogus Missile", in which Ankit Panda got some really interesting new information out of the US intelligence community. Perhaps inadvertently that information raised a few questions about whether US story about Russian violation is as consistent as the United States wanted us to believe.

In this post I'll try to summarize my thoughts about how various pieces might (or might not) fit together. The post is not very polished, but I hope it conveys the main points. The usual caveat is, of course, in order - we still don't have enough information to be certain of anything. The United States is hiding behind secrecy (totally bogus in my view), mostly relying on leaks along the lines "we know that we are right." The United States wouldn't even openly challenge the key statements made by Russia at that briefing. To me this secrecy looks more and more as an admission of the weakness of the argument. (And, yes, I know about the NATO statement and the independent assessment of some of the European states. But we don't know any details of these either, so I remain skeptical.)

So, here is what we have learned.

the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency have now "determined that the cruise missile canisters and launch vehicle the Russian Ministry of Defense publicly showed at the briefing were not related to the missile that the United States has argued since 2014 violates the 1987 treaty."

In addition,

"the treaty-violating missile is larger than the canister shown publicly by the Russian Ministry of Defense and uses a separate launch vehicle" and "the United States assesses the SSC-8 to be a road-mobile variant of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile."

That was not quite the argument that the United States has made so far. Or, more precisely, this fits some parts of the story, but doesn't quite fit all of them. It is possible to come up with a theory that is reasonably compatible with what is known publicly known, although this theory does rely on an assumption that the United States got one key piece of evidence wrong. It's difficult to tell how likely it is, but I see no reason why this should be ruled it out, especially since it would explain quite a bit.

At this point the designations that are normally used in this discussion - SSC-8, 9M729, Kalibr - are not particularly helpful. To avoid confusion, I will use different designations to refer to cruise missiles under discussion and then will try to see if we could establish a link between the two sets.

U.S. theory of the violation, outlined in a statement by DNI Coats, begins with the fact that Russia tested a certain cruise missile from a fixed launcher. That missile, CM-1, was tested at least six times and "the longest test of the six saw the missile fly to a range of 2,070 km." It would be a logical conclusion that this CM-1 missile is very close to the Kalibr SLCM - it has roughly the same range, it was developed by the same Novator design bureau and so on - there are only so many cruise missiles one design bureau can develop.

The next step in the U.S. assessment is that some missile, call it CM-2, was tested from a road-mobile launcher (as I understand, after that series of CM-1 tests was completed). We know that CM-2 was never tested to the INF range (i.e. to 500+ km). The United States also claims that CM-2 has been already deployed - the most recent estimate is that four battalions are equipped with missiles of this type.

On top of that, there is a third missile - the one that was shown by the MoD at that briefing in January. Let's call it CM-3. Russia said that this missile was never tested to the INF range and that it is therefore fully compliant with the treaty. As far as I can tell, Russia did not dispute that the missile demonstrated during the briefing has been already deployed.

By looking at all this we can reasonably conclude that CM-2 and CM-3 look like the same missile - both were tested from a mobile launcher at the same site (the 5-km circle with the center at 48.774, 46.31 - this looks like the information that the United States gave Russia to identify the test site), neither was tested to the INF range, both missiles have been already deployed. Russia says that CM-3 is 9M729, which is a version of Iskander/9M728/SSC-7. The "CM-2 is CM-3 is 9M729" theory also has quite a bit of support in various U.S. statements. At some point, U.S. officials assured Hans Kristensen that the missile Russia developed and deployed - I will continue to call it CM-2 at this point - is a derivative of 9M728/SSC-7 and that the its launcher has a characteristic "hump" that distinguishes it from that of 9M728/SSC-7. Also, a New York Times story interviewed General Breedlove, who said that "location and verification [is] really tough" since "the mobile launcher for the cruise missile [CM-2] closely resembles the mobile launcher used for the Iskander." This perfectly fits the "CM-2 is CM-3 is 9M729" theory as the "hump," is not easy to see on satellite images and in all other respects the CM-3 launcher does look very much like that of 9M728/SSC-7.

What the U.S. intelligence is telling us now is that the "CM-2 is CM-3 is 9M729" theory is wrong. The crucial link in the U.S. assessment is that CM-2 is the same CM-1 missile that was tested to the INF range, albeit from a fixed launcher. This is exactly what makes it a violation of the INF treaty. The "CM-2 is CM-1" theory, however, has a few problems. One is the claim that CM-1 is larger than the container that Russia showed. Since CM-1 is also assessed to be a variant of Kalibr, it is safe to assume that it's an about 8-meter missile. Since this theory assumes that "CM-2 is CM-1" and the United States still insists that CM-2 has been already deployed, it would need a larger launcher as well. That doesn't quite fit General Breedlove's statement about CM-2 launchers closely resembling the Iskander one. If the "hump" is indeed not easy to see, telling a launcher that can accommodate a 8-meter missile from the one that carries a 6-meter 9M729/SSC-7 should not be that big of a problem. In any event, nobody has seen that larger launcher anywhere.

The problem, of course, is that the assessment that the missile tested from a fixed launcher [CM-1] is exactly the one that was later tested and deployed on a road-mobile launcher [CM-2] is the key link in U.S. accusations. If that link is removed, there is no case anymore. And in my view, all pieces fit together much better if that link is removed. The missile (well, the container of) that Russia showed in January [CM-3] is indeed 9M279, it is a variant of 9M728/SSC-7, and it may well be treaty compliant. The United States correctly identified it as such and determined that this missile, CM-2, is 9M729. But it appears that this missile has nothing to do with whatever Russia tested from a fixed launcher [CM-1]. That missile definitely exists, but it's just a different missile.

Of course, saying that this whole thing is a case of mistaken identity is an extremely steep assumption. I should be careful to say that I don't believe we can assume that. But in my view it is a possibility that we need to consider. The truth is we don't know how that link was made and to what extent we can trust it. We know that the U.S. intelligence community has "high confidence" in its conclusion, but that's about it. People who have seen the evidence swear that it is rock solid. It may well be. If it is, the United States should show it - secrecy at this point is counterproductive and increasingly makes it look like the United States is changing its theory of violation as it goes along.

In any event, feel free to chime in here on on Twitter if you believe that I missed something of if you have information that would support one theory or the other.

[UPDATE: I slightly edited the second paragraph for clarity.]