Russian roulette

Russian missiles by Shutterstock.com

Four Russian anti-aircraft missiles of "S" class in park. Shot in June, near Dnieper river (Dniepropetrovsk, Ukraine).

Article Highlights

  • Obama's decision to seek further reductions flatly ignores reported Russian violations of the 1987 INF Treaty.

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  • The Obama administration's failures to report Russia's likely violations form a pattern of willful blindness.

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  • There needs to be a reckoning about the pervasive history of Russian violations of major arms-control agreements.

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When Winston Churchill became prime minister at Britain's point of greatest peril, one commentator observed, "the hour has arrived, and the man is here." The danger to freedom in 1940 emanated from Berlin, site of the iconic Brandenburg Gate. When President John F. Kennedy came to a Berlin divided by the Cold War in 1963 to proclaim America's continuing defense of freedom against Soviet threats, his venue was universally understood. And when President Ronald Reagan came to the Brandenburg Gate in 1987 to say, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," no one missed the symbolism.

For both Kennedy and Reagan, one could easily say that their hour had also arrived, and that they were prepared for the challenges they faced protecting the Free World. But President Barack Obama's June 19 speech at the Brandenburg Gate was not in the same league. Obama's use of the phrase "peace with justice" was clearly intended as a contrast to Reagan's "peace through strength" doctrine, but it simply highlights the president's inadequacies. Reagan (and Kennedy, who coined "peace with justice") stood squarely against Moscow, refused to be intimidated, and demanded that the Soviets reverse their aggressive policies.

Reagan repeatedly insisted that bilateral arms-control agreements must actually enhance U.S. national security and contain effective verification mechanisms, and he refused to tolerate Russian violations. By contrast, Obama argued last week for further reductions of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons of up to one-third below the ill-advised New START agreement's already dangerously low levels. The Senate should have rejected New START, and it seems highly unlikely that senators already disillusioned by Obama's failure to honor his commitments to maintain the reliability and security of the nuclear stockpile will fall once again for glib promises.

Obama's motivation for further substantial reductions is the ideological belief that lower levels of U.S. nuclear weapons will make a safer world. His philosophy is thus the polar opposite of Reagan's -- one more appropriately labeled "peace through weakness," a doctrine Churchill emphatically rejected in his time.

But beyond the policy arguments and historical evidence already under intense debate, Obama's decision to seek further reductions flatly ignores reported Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF prohibits both the United States and Russia (but only these two powers) from developing, testing, or possessing ballistic or cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (intermediate range ballistic missiles, or IRBM's). Russia may well be taking steps to mask its INF violations, pretending, for example, that all their new missiles are longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's), which are not prohibited under any existing agreement. It may sound bizarre that shorter-range missiles are banned while longer-range missiles are not, but that is symptomatic of the upside-down world of arms control.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which included a provision based on classified and unclassified information concerning significant Russian arms-control violations. The House bill urged Obama to demand Moscow stop its violations, and sought the president's commitment against further reductions in the U.S. nuclear deterrent until "this Russian behavior is corrected." Responding to Obama's speech, House Armed Service Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said: "The President's desire to negotiate a new round of arms control with the Russians, while Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty, strains credulity." Instead, Obama threatened to veto the authorization bill if it contained the language about Russian treaty violations.

While neither Congress nor the administration have publicly identified Moscow's violations, Russian statements and press reports give strong indications of two of them. First, Russia is developing and testing, and may be ready to deploy, the R-500 cruise missile, which appears to violate the INF Treaty. Based on Russian official and unofficial statements going back to 2007, the R-500 cruise missile falls within the INF's prohibited range.

Second, on June 6, Moscow announced another flight test of the new "Rubezh" ICBM from a mobile launcher, the fourth since testing began in Sept. 2011. All these successful flight tests were within the INF-prohibited range, thereby expanding Russia's ability to threaten Europe, even with missile defenses, which is precisely what INF was intended to prevent.

The Obama administration's failures to report these likely violations form a pattern of willful blindness. Further evidence of Russia's dangerous intentions lies in its rejection of basic elements of the 20-year-old Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program (often known as "Nunn-Lugar" after its authors). CTR provided billions of dollars of U.S. assistance for eliminating Soviet-era missile, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs. Under the program's new umbrella agreement, effective this month, Russia clearly rejected the central element of transparency that allowed U.S. access to its weapons sites. When Moscow needed aid to destroy weapons it no longer wanted, it accepted transparency. Now Moscow stills wants the aid, but transparency is out, which tells us all we need to know.

Russia's apparent INF violations as well as continuing violations of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, among others, demonstrate its disregard for treaty commitments. Even today, well after the Cold War, Russia still repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons to defeat U.S. and European missile defenses and to develop and deploy new systems to do so. Yet despite Russia's circumvention and violation of existing treaties -- and efforts at intimidation -- President Obama sees no stumbling blocks to new agreements, or even unilateral U.S. reductions. Moreover, the White House responds to Russian programs and threats to overwhelm our missile-defense systems in a nuclear attack with offers to share classified technical data about these systems that would enhance Russia's ability to defeat them.

While Russia's belligerent nuclear rhetoric and policies are outrageous, it is even worse that the Obama administration is blissfully determined to further weaken our own nuclear deterrent and missile defenses in an effort to placate Moscow. There needs to be a reckoning about the pervasive history of material Russian violations of major arms-control agreements. And the time for that reckoning is well before any serious negotiations begin on any new agreement, and certainly well before congressional consideration of the implications of any agreement that might result.

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