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Russia Takes a Swing at Compliance Analysis

I devoted my August 16 and August 23, 2010, NPF essays to criticizing the Obama Administration’s flawed report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments (a.k.a. the Noncompliance Report, or NCR).  Lest readers think I only take aim at bad American compliance analysis, however, I have now read the official English-language version of the Russian Federation’s recent publication on purported American violations – The Facts of Violation by the United States of its Obligations in the Sphere of Nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Arms Control – and it’s quite a rambling mess indeed.

In fact, the U.S. and Russian publications form quite a contrast.  The bad portions of the 2010 U.S. NCR – about which my main points  of complaint are its evasiveness about Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) interpretation, its incomplete and confusing retreat from previous U.S. conclusions about Iran’s violation of Article II of the NPT, and its empty incoherence about other countries’ compliance with nuclear testing moratoria – are only small parts of a long and otherwise generally creditable U.S. document.  By contrast, the Russian report, if one can really call it that, is never more than a dog’s breakfast of the sort of politically-driven playground tit-for-tat one is more used to seeing from Iranian officials.  (“We’re in violation of the NPT?  Oh yeah?  Well, you’re in violation of the NPT.  So there!”)  Moscow’s document is as hard to follow as it is tendentious, and seldom offers anything approaching real compliance analysis.

I won’t bore NPF readers with a detailed account of the “numerous, often very gross” U.S. violations alleged in the Russian document, or with a discussion of their merits: American officials are more than capable of fending for themselves in this regard.  In light of this website’s recent discussion of the history of the U.S. NCR and the emphasis placed, in recent U.S. editions, upon offering explanations of the legal obligations in question as well an analysis of each country’s compliance with them, however, it’s worth making a few points about the type of analysis offered – or, more accurately, not offered – in the new Russian publication.

Significantly, little if any effort is made in the Russian document to describe just what the obligations actually are that the United States is said to have violated, or how.  Its characteristic approach is to set forth some claims of fact, the simply to declare that they violate  something.  Content to offer at the end a bare, sweeping conclusion that “the above facts show that the United States commits numerous, often very gross, violations of existing agreements on disarmament and nonproliferation,” the Russian authors apparently felt little obligation (or perhaps were simply unable) actually to explain their reasoning.

The document alleges, for example, that British tests of submarine-launched ballistic missiles constitute a  U.S. violation of the START agreement of 1991 to which Britain is not a party, and that U.S. anti-ballistic missile testing targets violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987.  Just what provisions of these treaties are violated however – and why – is not explained.

In contrast to the U.S. NCR, there is scarcely a trace in the Russian document of actual compliance analysis.  If the Kremlin did any, it isn’t willing to explain its reasoning or in most cases even to steer the reader to the specific provisions in question.  All we are offered is a series of conclusory statements.  In the realm of nuclear nonproliferation, moreover, the Russian document doesn’t even actually claim any violation to have occurred: it just recounts what it says are some facts relating to lost radiation sources.  Even if we are to trust the Kremlin’s account of these events, therefore, one must infer that Russian “compliance analysts” found themselves at a loss to explain how these events violated any nonproliferation agreement to which the United States is a party.

(Incidentally, we are also told that the United States “constantly” commits export control violations – of some unspecified sort, but apparently having to do with U.S. laws rather than any international agreement – by supplying military technology to “China, Iran, Syria and Libya.”  What is one to make of this surreal claim of purported American military sales to these traditional clients of the Russian arms industry?)

Some discussions in the Russian document are simply self-contradictory to the point of incoherence.  In a discussion of U.S. compliance with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), for instance, the publication complains that with regard to biological agents, “the provisions of U.S. law are routinely violated.”  Or perhaps not.  The Kremlin also notes, however, that U.S. authorities have “repeatedly thwarted attempts at illegal exports of equipment and materials intended for microbiological and biotechnological research, as well as pathogenic microorganisms.”  (For some reason, the Russian authors seem unhappy with this.)  The reader is also simultaneously told that the United States is in violation of Article IV of the BTWC and that America is “not in breach of its obligations” (emphasis added) under the the Convention, and that Washington is in fact “supportive of the importance of the BTWC.”  One’s head spins.

It is hard to tell what to make of this stream-of-conciousness discussion, but it doesn’t look much like compliance analysis, and – assuming that this official English-language version is a decent translation of the Russian original – one is not left with the impression that the Kremlin devoted much intellectual candlepower to the effort in any event.  It was apparently felt enough merely to allege myriad U.S. violations in generally vague terms.  Perhaps Kremlin officials reasoned that if they created enough smoke, observers would conclude that there had to be a real fire somewhere.  (Politically, of course, such tactics often succeed.  Analytically, however, they are a travesty.)

It is not clear yet whether the Obama Administration will offer any response to this Russian publication, but as I noted above, U.S. officials surely need no help from me in defending America’s (good) record of compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements.  I mention the Kremlin document in this essay, however, in order to re-emphasize how important it is that compliance analysis provide both legal explication and a clear account of the reasoning behind conclusions.  This Russian document is a classic example of what readers will not – or at least should not – find credible.

The Russian publication is a document designed to engender and to exploit confusion between the mere allegation of a violation and its persuasive demonstration.  As such, it is, in a backhanded way, an advertisement for the sort of detailed discussion and analysis that American officials began to offer in the U.S. NCR in the early 2000s.  If compliance analysis is undertaken, as it should be, in order genuinely to persuade, and to provide a solid foundation for policy decisions – rather than simply to malign its targets and offer mud-slinging media talking points – such analysis has an obligation to be detailed, clear, and demonstrably rooted in both factual and legal argument.

This is not a point unique to compliance analysis, of course.  As the U.S. Declaration of Independence makes clear – in a passage egregiously (but revealingly) misunderstood by Vice President Joe Biden, who seems to have taken it not as a call to explain the distinctive merits of American policy choices but rather to conform them to the views of foreign audiences – “a decent respect [for] the opinions of mankind requires” that we should “declare the causes” of the positions we take.  In compliance analysis, as elsewhere, we owe others the respect of making clear to them why we believe what we believe.

The Russians have manifestly failed this test, but the very egregiousness of their example should offer lessons to everyone who works on compliance analysis – not least in the Obama Administration, which chose to back away from clarity and intellectual accountability in the NPT section of the most  recent U.S. NCR. This is no time to shirk analytical honesty and rigor in favor merely of opaque and conclusory allegation.  Let the Russians traffic in that debased coinage; we need not follow them.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford took office in January 2018 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. In October 2019, he was delegated the authorities and responsibilities of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, nor those of the U.S. Government.
Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Dear Dr. Ford,
    Thank you for this, it makes interesting reading. I agree with much of your analysis, which leads me to support your suspicion that this could very well be some sort of rough draft report. If it is not, it indeed shows a shocking level amateurism in public diplomacy at the Russian State Department.
    I suppose the report can be seen as a non-costly way of Russian assertiveness towards the US, courting those critical of US policies with rhetoric. Are gas prices up?

    Also, thank you again for your hospitality last May!

    With kind regards,
    Frederik Voute (from the Netherlands)

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