- By Jon WolfsthalJon Wolfsthal is a globally recognized expert on nuclear weapons and nonproliferation policy. A nonresident fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he was President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He is the former deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He has served on site in North Korea, helped negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia, and served as Vice President Joe Biden’s nuclear security advisor from 2009 to 2012.
Russia presents security challenges to the United States and its allies for which the Trump administration has yet to indicate any kind of a policy direction or goals. In the nuclear arena, none of these challenges are more acute than Russia’s ongoing violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty. That Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, banned the Soviet Union and the United States from having or testing ground-launched missiles with ranges between 312 and 3,428 miles.
The INF Treaty and I kind of grew up together (yes, I am a geek and track my childhood, in part, through arms control agreements). In the 1970s, Russia deployed new nuclear-tipped missiles in Warsaw Pact states that could hit all of Europe. President Jimmy Carter and NATO responded with the dual-track decision, deploying American missiles in NATO states that could hit Russia, some in 15 minutes or less, while simultaneously seeking to negotiate elimination of such weapons on both sides. These missiles were highly destabilizing — they could reach London from Moscow in minutes, creating crisis instability and compressing decision times.
While the missiles were being deployed in Europe, over massive and prolonged protests, I was active in the nuclear freeze movement in New York, and later I did my first real college research on the dual-track decision. So my career came full circle when I became the senior director for arms control at the National Security Council in 2014, just after the U.S. government announced that Russia was violating the INF Treaty. That Russia was blatantly cheating on an agreement that helped end the arms race and was a cornerstone of post-Cold War nuclear stability was bad enough. Russia’s steadfast refusal to even acknowledge its actions — reminiscent of its Cold War behavior — made clear how hard addressing this issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin would be.
To this day, Russia’s behavior remains the same. Moscow has now reportedly begun to deploy a ground-launched cruise missile known as the SSC-8, while steadfastly denying that any such violation has taken place. At the same time, Russian officials take pains to justifying any hypothetical decision to violate the treaty on U.S. actions, including the deployment of regional missile defenses in Europe. Missile defenses are not constrained by the agreement and the United States goes to great pains to ensure that it remains in full compliance with its arms control treaty obligations.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States pursued three goals with respect to Russia and the INF Treaty: 1) deny Russia any military advantage from its violation, 2) work with and reassure European and East Asian allies that America’s commitment to their security remained ironclad, and 3) work to convince Russia to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty. In the end, we were successful in two of the three goals, but clearly unable to convince Russia to fully implement the agreement despite repeated commitment to its goals.
Now, it seems, Putin has decided to press his luck by actually deploying the system, and President Donald Trump must manage this challenge at a time when he and many members of his inner circle are suspected of inappropriate or even illegal ties to Russia. Trump has said little and done less to address this issue, and in this vacuum Congress is already forging ahead with a chest thumping piece of legislation. A new pending bill would find Russia in “material breach” of the INF (a decision that can only be made by the executive branch), push the United States to develop its own systems for deployment in Europe, work to sell missiles to European allies to target Russia, and develop cruise missiles defenses in Europe to counter Russia’s new missiles. These are all issues that the Obama administration considered, but it was not clear if these decisions would be affordable, improve NATO security, or convince Russia to return to INF compliance. It also seems highly likely that some of these steps would further undermine crisis stability in Europe. In addition, NATO states would not necessarily agree to these steps, which would undermine NATO alliance unity at a time when it is already under pressure — something that advantages Russia and not the United States. Regardless of your analysis of Russia’s actions, Trump’s inaction and Congress’ proposals makes managing the strategic relationship with Russia and reassuring NATO allies much harder.
Dangerously, Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty and noncompliance with other pacts removes — at least for now — new arms control agreements as a way to manage Washington’s burgeoning bilateral strategic competition with Moscow. It is hard to see how even the master of the art of the deal could negotiate a new nuclear deal with Russia when it is violating one of the most important ones ever signed. Even this GOP Senate might have a hard time accepting that gift from Trump.
Why does this matter at all? Well, in one sense — it doesn’t. The SCC-8 can reach targets that were already within range of Russia’s strategic missiles. Thus, the military balance is not dramatically affected by this move.
In the larger sense, however, it matters a lot. With short flight times, stealth, and mobility, the SSC-8 cruise missiles is designed to deliver a nuclear surprise attack and undermines crisis stability in Europe. In addition, having these systems frees up Russian strategic missiles to more reliably target U.S. territory and to defeat any missile defenses designed to protect America. More dangerously, it puts metal behind the stated willingness of Moscow to use nuclear weapons early. And deployed in the far east, these systems also present a new way to target Japanese and South Korean allies and defeat U.S. missile defenses in those countries as well.
When the Obama administration left the White House, we left behind a playbook for how to address just this scenario. The legal and intelligence basis for taking a range of actions — including declaring Moscow in material breach of the INF Treaty and taking direct countermeasures that could prevent Moscow from gaining any advantage from its violation — are all available. Whether the Trump administration plans to avail itself of these options or pursue other steps remains unclear, as with so many other aspects of Trump’s Russia policy.
Time, sadly, is not on America’s side. If Russia’s violations go unchallenged, then U.S. allies — already on edge — will increasingly question U.S. commitment to their security. In addition, if Russia cannot be convinced to return to compliance, it is hard to see how the New START strategic arms control treaty that effectively manages America’s strategic nuclear competition can be extended or renegotiated when it expires in 2021.
America’s reaction to this challenge must seek to make the country and its allies more secure, not less. Legally, the United States can find Russia in material breach of the INF and take countermeasures, even including the development and deployment of its own systems that would be otherwise prohibited by the treaty. However, doing so would likely undermine the cause of NATO unity, as the population of many member states, particularly in western Europe, are not ready to consider increasing nuclear deployments to counter Russian moves. However, other steps are possible, such as deploying additional conventional air to surface cruise missiles, such as the JASSM-ER in Eastern Europe, and finding other ways to remind Russia why INF was in its interest back in 1987 and remains so today. If done as part of a process to convince Russia to verifiably destroy the offending missiles and launchers and restore the INF Treaty to full health, these steps would be welcome across the U.S. political spectrum. But silence and the status quo are the worst of both worlds — they encourage Russian bad behavior and undermine both American leadership and European stability.
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