The Obama administration is considering a range of options to respond to Russia’s ongoing violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Part of the response could involve deploying new U.S. weapons to Eastern Europe.
Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld, the outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that Russia continues to violate the 1987 agreement, which banned both the U.S. and Russia from developing or deploying nuclear weapons with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The treaty was the first nuclear arms agreement to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.
The administration is currently debating both defensive and offensive responses, Winnefeld said, while top officials continue pushing the Russians to get back into compliance. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Russian leadership “very recently,” Winnefeld added.
“The first solution to this problem is for Russia to stop doing this. That’s the most important thing,” said Winnefeld. “That’s the way out of this problem. If it doesn’t look like that is going to happen, there are options.”
The State Department admitted publicly last July that the U.S. government believes Russia is violation of the treaty. Privately, top administration officials have known that Russia was in violation since at least 2012, because it has tested ground-based cruise missiles with the prohibited range. So far Russia has faced no punishment.
Two U.S. officials briefed on the options said that the Pentagon has submitted a list of potential countermeasures to the National Security Council, but the White House has yet to schedule a high-level NSC meeting to discuss and decide what to do. Some of the more aggressive options would include deploying more land-based military hardware to NATO allies for missile defense near the Russian border, to counter the new Russian cruise capability. Expanded targeted sanctions and added patrols near Russian space are less aggressive options on the table.
Consequences from the U.S. “would indicate to Russia that this is not going to do them any good … and would go a long way to reassuring our partners that we are very serious about wanting to keep Russia’s adherence to the treaty that we all signed so long ago,” Winnefeld said.
The State Department sent a delegation to Moscow last September to confront Russia on these treaty violations, led by Undersecretary of State for Nonproliferation Rose Gottemoeller. The delegation returned to Washington empty handed.
U.S. and Russian officials told me that the U.S. delegation refused to tell the Russians exactly what Russia had done to violate the treaty. U.S. officials said they didn’t want to risk disclosing intelligence that could compromise sources and methods, and besides, the Russians already knew exactly how they were violating the treaty.
But the Russian side used the American officials' circumspection to rebuff the accusations. In a blustery speech in February at the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the American allegations "avoid specific facts.” He went on to accuse the U.S. of violating the treaty, both by deploying ballistic missile defense elements in Europe and by using drones. (This is an odd accusation; the treaty is silent on drones.)
Russian officials told me their side wants to negotiate over the violations in a way that addresses both Russia's cruise missile programs and the U.S. missile defenses. That’s unlikely because the Obama administration has no real space to negotiate over U.S. missile defense. It already conceded to Russian demands by cancelling sites in Eastern Europe and a phase of the European missile defense program in 2009.
And that was when U.S.-Russian relations were relatively positive. Now, since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, which included thinly veiled threats by President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons, there’s no appetite in either Europe or Washington for further missile concessions to Moscow. And in Congress, pressure is mounting on the administration to do something about Russia’s nuclear weapons violations.
The House’s version of next year’s defense policy bill has some strong language regarding the violations. The bill would require the administration to tell Congress whether Russia is taking any steps to come into compliance. If not, the bill directs the president to develop military capabilities to counter the new Russian missiles.
“They need to do something about it,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member James Risch told me. "Why have a treaty if you don’t do something about it?"
Risch said that treaties with Russia, including the New START treaty he opposed in 2010, are more trouble than they are worth because the administration never had any plan about what to do if Russia was in violation. If Russia doesn’t get back into compliance, he said the U.S. should consider withdrawing from the treaty altogether.
“Certainly, they need to have some strong understandings about whether or not everybody is going to abide by the treaty. If not, we are going to have to go in another direction,” Risch said.
Scuttling the 1987 treaty altogether by unilaterally withdrawing seems like a drastic option. That would also scuttle the verification and inspection regimes that go along with the agreement, which provide the U.S. valuable insight and reassurance about Russian nuclear activities.
On the other hand, treaties with Russia are not as beneficial as they used to be. The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty is all but defunct. Russia blatantly discarded the Budapest Memorandum when it invaded Ukraine. In the larger view, Russia is a declining power. The U.S. may need to resume development of its own medium-range nuclear arsenal to confront this century’s biggest challenge, a rising and increasingly militaristic China.