An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Time to Stop Putin’s Nuclear Arms Buildup

Ukraine isn’t the only place where the White House is letting a belligerent Russia off the hook.


Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles with no serious response from President Obama. Not only did Russia violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, it did so while negotiating with the Obama administration over New START, a 2010 arms reduction treaty. The White House was at best naïve to Russian duplicity; at worst it was complicit.

Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing his muscles with no serious response from President Obama. Not only did Russia violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, it did so while negotiating with the Obama administration over New START, a 2010 arms reduction treaty. The White House was at best naïve to Russian duplicity; at worst it was complicit.

In October 2007, the Guardian reported that Putin was considering withdrawal from the INF Treaty. “It will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries develop such weapons systems, and among those are countries in our near vicinity,” Putin said, perhaps in a veiled reference to Pakistan and China’s midrange nuclear weapons technology.

Apparently complying with the treaty was just too difficult for the Russian president. According to a State Department report released in July, Russia tested a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) in violation of the INF Treaty. It’s likely that Putin was aware of this new missile in 2007 and, according to press reports, the U.S. government suspected a potential violation shortly thereafter.

According to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, the administration will “work to resolve the compliance issues…through bilateral and multilateral means,” even though, also according to Psaki, “we have attempted to address [this very serious matter] with Russia for some time now.”

The administration negotiated a new arms control treaty with the Russians before resolving the potential INF treaty violation. It is not clear why. Beyond that problem, cajoling the Russians to return to compliance with the INF treaty, even if possible, fails to get at the most important question: Why was Russia developing an INF treaty-prohibited nuclear weapon at the same time it was negotiating a new strategic nuclear arms treaty with the United States in 2009 and 2010? What did the Kremlin hope to gain militarily or strategically? We need to answer these questions to determine how to respond.

Militarily, a new mobile GLCM with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers, which is what the Russians reportedly tested, enables Russia to threaten U.S. allies in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia. It also puts important targets in China, India, Pakistan, and other countries within range of Moscow’s nuclear force.

Russia deploys aircraft and submarines armed with cruise missiles around the world that already threaten our allies. But air and submarine bases can be targeted and destroyed by the U.S. military in the event of a confrontation. A mobile GLCM, on the other hand, is much harder to find. General Philip M. Breedlove, the senior NATO commander, has said that this new weapon is “absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with.”

Strategically, the deployment of a nuclear-armed GLCM further increases the disparity in regional nuclear forces between Russia and NATO, which could weaken alliance deterrence and assurance calculations. Russia currently enjoys about a 10-to-1 advantage over NATO in nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe. It provides Russia a counterbalance to those countries near Russia that are developing intermediate-range nuclear forces and, in some cases, long-range conventional strike capabilities, such as China. Russia also feels that GLCM capabilities compensate for shortcomings in Russia’s conventional forces.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his announcement on Aug. 14 that he had approved the basing of nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles and TU-22 heavy bombers in Crimea adds additional foreboding to Russia’s ominous development of a new nuclear GLCM. The stationing of new nuclear forces on the Crimean peninsula, Ukrainian territory Russia annexed in March, is both a new and menacing threat to the security of Europe and also a clear message from Putin that he intends to continue to violate the territorial integrity of his neighbors. Even as Putin significantly increases Russian nuclear force posture against Europe by putting nuclear weapons on the Crimean peninsula, over the weekend he reinforced his unambiguous message of continued aggression when he reportedly told the president of the European Commission, “If I wanted to, I could take Kiev in two weeks.”

The Russian deception of negotiating a nuclear arms reduction while building up nuclear arms poses a direct threat to the United States. While the GLCM cannot reach our homeland, it would free up Russia’s air- and submarine-launched cruise missiles from a European scenario to target U.S. nuclear retaliatory capabilities, command and control nodes, and even U.S. cities. In fact, the commander of the U.S. Northern Command has made detecting and defending against Russian cruise missile threats a priority.

The Russians have also circumvented the INF Treaty by developing a new shorter-range intercontinental ballistic missile called the RS-26. Along with testing a new GLCM, the development of the RS-26 supports a recent assessment by the National Intelligence Council in its Global Trends 2030 report that “Russia is pursuing new concepts and capabilities for expanding the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy.” This stands in contrast to the U.S. approach under President Obama, which has been to reduce numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons and their role in strategy. Either Russia didn’t think it would get caught cheating on the INF treaty, or it didn’t care.

How should the United States respond to Russia’s nuclear provocation?

It is too late to negotiate the Russians back into compliance. They have tested this capability and we have no way to know for certain whether they will deploy these systems.

It is time to find other ways to mitigate this new threat. If the motivation behind Russia’s INF Treaty violation is to achieve military and strategic advantage through the development of new nuclear capabilities, we have three lines of effort to pursue. First, we should expand U.S. homeland missile defense capabilities, particularly to address the threat posed by Russia’s air- and sea-launched cruise missiles. Second, we should reinstate funding to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons, which have suffered delays caused by funding shortfalls over the past three years, and perhaps even develop new nuclear systems to counter the GLCM. Finally, we should consult with NATO and other allies about increasing regional missile defenses, especially to contend with the new Russian GLCM. The Department of Defense should also conduct a reassessment of America’s nuclear posture to ensure our force is survivable against Russia’s new shorter-range nuclear threats and nuclear strategy.

The problem with Russia isn’t so much a treaty compliance issue. Rather, it seems that there is a fundamental difference in the way the U.S. and Russia view nuclear strategy, the role of nuclear weapons, and arms control. Russia used the arms control process to reduce the threat posed by U.S. strategic nuclear forces, while simultaneously pursuing alternative nuclear capabilities — such as cruise missiles — in support of its military strategy and national security. The United States under President Obama, on the other hand, has tried to set a disarmament and nuclear nonproliferation example by reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy in the hope that the rest of the world would follow. It hasn’t.

This is the only way to explain why the Russians were negotiating New START even while they were developing a new INF-Treaty prohibited missile. What’s harder to explain is why we let them get away with it.

Jim Inhofe is a U.S. senator from Oklahoma. He serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Twitter: @JimInhofe

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