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Why Did Obama Wait So Long to Go Public With Russia’s Arms Treaty Violation?

Why Did Obama Wait So Long to Go Public With Russia’s Arms Treaty Violation?

President Obama formally accused Russia on Monday of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. It was clearly part of the White House response to Vladimir Putin’s continued meddling in Ukraine. Word that Russia may have violated the treaty a while ago by testing a new missile is distressing, of course. However, what is more distressing is that the Obama administration remained quiet about this building issue for years only to unveil it as part of a package meant to punish Russia. 

The INF treaty eliminated an entire class of nuclear ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles with a range up to some 3,400 miles. It was a big deal in that it eliminated nuclear weapons expressly aimed at our European allies. It was one of the crowning achievements of U.S.-Soviet diplomacy and took a rather large bite out of both sides’ nuclear stockpiles. It eliminated 2,500 nuclear missiles in total. Russia’s desire to break the treaty is not new. In fact, in 2013 former Defense Minister and current presidential chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, commented about the INF, "We are fulfilling it, but it can’t last forever." Yet, the administration remained quiet about information on the testing of a new nuclear missile (that, by the way, violated President Obama’s own denuclearization policy goals). Since today’s protest is in response to Russian bad behavior we can only assume the silence was about Russian good behavior or a desire to incentivize good behavior. 

Leave aside the fact that Russian good behavior is impossible to find, despite the reset policy pushing for acquiescence to Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the abandonment of land-based missile defense, the abandonment of U.S. allies and countless other actions falling under the rubric of President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reset policy. The administration apparently believed that not bringing up a blatant violation of the INF treaty was an appropriate way to throw Vladimir Putin a bone or that it was that last grain of sweetener needed to please him. Even more troubling, Russia’s new medium range missile would have been under development during a time when President Obama was promoting the atrocious New START Treaty. 

No wonder Putin believes he can literally get away with murder. Treaty obligations are something a country should observe regardless of its behavior. That’s the whole point. Treaties are not realpolitik bargaining chits. They are what you sign to lock in the bargaining. Moreover, this administration blew into office crowing about the need for "engagement." They typically meant that we should "engage" Syria and Iran. Regardless of your opinion of how that has worked out this is a case of the president failing to "engage" a country about possible violations of a denuclearization Cold War treaty while negotiating a denuclearization treaty.

At the time, Russia’s behavior — while not good by any measure — did not approach the behavior of terrorism-sponsoring Iran or murderous Syria. Yet, the administration proved unwilling to "engage" Russia about its legal transgressions, it’s violation of President Obama’s stated goal of denuclearization and the creation of a class of missile explicitly forbidden by treaty. At no point did the Obama administration show any desire to review its reset policy nor did the reset policy show any sign whatsoever of working. Keep in mind, the administration sat on this information during the entire half-year long Ukraine crisis while Russia annexed part of Ukraine. It took drunken Russian-sponsored rebels stonewalling recovery teams from accessing the crash site of a Boeing 777, which the Russian-sponsored rebels themselves blew out of the sky, before President Obama spoke up. As outrageous as that is can you blame Putin for believing he can get away with his mischief in Ukraine?

President Obama has some serious explaining to do. When did they know and why was the administration refusing to raise the INF violation with Russia? We know Rose Gottemoeller, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security raised this issue with Russia in 2013 but there appears to have been little or any follow up. Were they afraid that raising the point would anger Putin? The eventual announcement, timed as it was, sure makes it seem so. 

Secretary Clinton and President Obama showed that they were willing to do almost anything, stooping even to debase the coin of treaties and international law to please President Putin. As welcome as it is that Obama finally spoke up about the violation the country shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the administration did not swerve one inch from the reset policy while observing Russia’s violations. Even though the reset policy has produced failure upon failure the administration still shows no sign of changing its assessment of Russia, a fact that certainly pleases President Putin.