Is Violating “Serious Obligations” of the INF Treaty the same as its “Material Breach”?

by Duncan Hollis

A few hours ago, the NY Times broke a story that the United States views Russian tests of a ground-launched missile as violating the 1987 INF treaty, formally (and lengthily) titled, “The Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles”.  According to the story, the State Department will publicly issue a report that says, among other things:

The United States has determined that the Russian Federation is in violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. treaty not to possess, produce or flight test a ground launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,”

In addition, President Obama has notified Russian President Putin of the U.S. charges in a letter delivered today.

The U.S. move adds a new brick to the wall of tensions building in the U.S.-Russian relationship (others include Crimea, Russian support for Eastern Ukrainian separatists, the MH17 tragedy, not to mention Edward Snowden’s continuing presence in Moscow).  I assume the timing of the U.S. accusations is no accident.  Moreover, I find it interesting that in so many of these recent crises with Russia, the United States has consistently relied on law and legal argumentation to push against Russia’s actions (or inaction).  This case may be the most extreme example of such an approach since the issue here is entirely one of international law and treaty interpretation.  As such, it’s very much in the wheelhouse of Opinio Juris and its readers. I thought I’d start the conversation with a few preliminary thoughts (emphasis on the “preliminary” since we don’t have too many details to go on as yet).

For starters, the precise language used to describe Russia’s tests — a violation of its obligations under the I.N.F. Treaty” — appears quite significant (especially where it comes after reportedly extensive deliberation). Certainly, the concept of a violation is easy to grasp and has important political implications. For treaty lawyers, however, the term “violation” is not the language we’d expect to see where there’s non-compliance with a treaty’s terms. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), which sets the customary international law rules in these cases, describes violations in terms of a treaty’s “breach”  More specifically, it articulates a set of remedies where breaches are “material” (see VCLT Article 60 here).  In this case, however, that key adjective — “material” — is nowhere to be found, suggesting the United States is not looking to invoke this VCLT provision.  But even if it were, in a move that has stumped generations of international law students, the VCLT’s remedies for a treaty’s material breach are quite limited — they entitle the non-breaching party to suspend or terminate its own obligations under the treaty in whole or in part (the VCLT also adds some procedural hurdles but these are largely ignored in State practice). Of course, there’s no evidence suggesting that the U.S. has any intention of suspending or terminating the INF Treaty; on the contrary, U.S. interests seem to lie squarely on keeping Russia obligated by the treaty as long as possible and forestalling any Russian move to withdraw from the INF Treaty (which Article XV allows it to do).  Simply put, the United States does not appear to consider Russia’s behavior as a material breach of the INF treaty nor want the remedies that label conveys; such a path would actually undercut the stability of the INF treaty’s continued performance for which the United States is pushing.

Second, just because the VCLT remedies are undesirable does not foreclose the United States from all legal leverage in this case. By using the term “violation . . . of obligations” the United States may be invoking a different set of international law rules … those of State responsibility.  Although the United States has been ambivalent to the UN’s Draft Articles on State Responsibility, those articles elaborate a detailed sets of obligations, rights and remedies where a State commits an internationally wrongful act (defined to include a breach of treaty obligations).  The offending State is required to cease (and not repeat) non-compliant behavior and the injured State(s) may engage in “counter-measures” to induce such a return to compliance. These counter-measures may include behavior previously categorized as a retorsion (lawful behavior such as canceling foreign assistance done in response to a prior breach) and a reprisal (behavior that would be unlawful but for the existence of the prior breach).  At present, the types of U.S. responses on offer described in Michael Gordon’s story are likely retorsions, but I assume other measures, including reprisals, could follow if Russia does not respond appropriately.

Taken together, these moves lend support to Bruno Simma and Christian Tams argument in my book that the law of state responsibility has proven more attractive to States than the VCLT’s remedies for treaty breach. That said, I do not mean to suggest that the VCLT is entirely irrelevant to this case.  On the contrary, its provisions on interpretation (Articles 31-33) are likely central to the U.S. claim of a Russian violation.  What’s more, I’d expect Russia to offer its own interpretation to the contrary employing the same interpretative framework (not to mention counter-claims of U.S. violations as described in tonight’s story).

All in all, there’s quite a bit here that should be of interest not just to those who care about arms control and nonproliferation, but international law and international relations more generally.  I’d be interested to hear what others think the U.S. claim suggests and how you see things playing out? Comments welcome.

5 Responses

  1. the phrase used may simply provide some flexibility and it may also be used for the general public and we should not read too much into its use.

  2. Here is a very good piece on the technical and political aspects of this case:

  3. I think this is the best article to date, which, interestingly, appeared before the final US determination of violation. Pifer’s article is quite insightful and cogent:

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  1. […] an opinion piece posted to Opinio Juris, Duncan Hollis discussed the Russian violation of The Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On […]

  2. […] today a good piece on the technical and political aspects of the case. And Duncan Hollis has a nice preliminary piece on legal aspects over at Opinio […]