Acusses Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, promises a US response
This article originally appeared at Politico
Ash Carter has quietly thrown down the gauntlet in a lingering dispute with Russia: If President Vladimir Putin continues to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the U.S. could respond in kind.
“The range of options we should look at from the Defense Department could include active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles; counter-force capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks; and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces,” Carter told senators in little-noticed written answers to follow-up questions from his confirmation hearing.
The defense secretary’s bottom line: “U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to compliance, our responses will make them less secure than they are today.”
Obama administration officials believe Russia began testing what they call its illegal cruise missile as long ago as 2008, predating the current crisis in Europe over Moscow’s military incursion into Ukraine. And they have accused Russia of violating the 1987 INF treaty under which the U.S. and then-Soviet Union agreed to pull back land-based missiles deployed around Europe that many feared could escalate a crisis too quickly for either side to control.
Now, with Putin still pressing into Ukraine, some members of Congress are even more eager to push back on what they see as Russia’s violations of the INF treaty. And Carter’s endorsement of new “counter-force capabilities,” following his cautious support for arming Ukraine’s government against the Russian invaders, puts him on the hawkish side of the spectrum as President Barack Obama and his advisers weigh how to resolve the standoff.
The Russian president may have secretly been developing a new intermediate missile even as diplomats were negotiating the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that the Senate approved in 2010, a breach of faith that hawks say deserves a serious answer. Carter would appear to agree. In his written answers to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), he said Putin had imperiled a cornerstone of global stability since the Cold War.
“Russia’s continued disregard for its international obligations and lack of meaningful engagement on this particular issue require the United States to take actions to protect its interests and security, as well as those of its allies and partners,” Carter said. “U.S. efforts should continue to remind Russia why the United States and Russia signed this treaty in the first place and be designed to bring Russia back into verified compliance with its obligations.”
Critics in Congress, meanwhile, call the violation of the INF agreement just another broken Russian promise.
“Within the last year, Mr. Putin has flagrantly and deliberately violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum, and the Minsk Protocol,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), long a top congressional delegate to NATO. “In order to change Putin’s calculus, President Obama must stop stalling and listen to his own secretary of defense, members of Congress in his own party and dozens of military and civilian leaders who have all recommended actions to empower the Ukrainian army so they can successfully confront the growing Russian threat.”
Another Republican, Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, said during an Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this month that there’s no reason for Washington to continue to honor the deal.
“If we’re the only team that’s sticking to the treaty,” he complained, “then I don’t know why we’re sticking with the treaty, since they are flagrantly violating it.”
Russian leaders, however, may already feel the U.S. and Europe have violated the treaty, said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Moscow points to the U.S.-backed Aegis Ashore system, which the Obama administration is fielding in Romania this year in place of former President George W. Bush’s previously planned ballistic missile defense system.
Weapons don’t need to be nuclear to violate the INF agreement. Between Aegis Ashore and Lockheed Martin’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which Poland is buying, Russia most likely feels it has both cause and cover to field a new intermediate-range missile, Kristensen said. Plus, the U.S. plans to field an extended-range JASSM, a new anti-ship missile and new ways to use weapons that exist in its stockpile.
For example, the Navy and Air Force have demonstrated their ability to launch a Raytheon-built Tomahawk cruise missile and then retarget it in flight. The pilot of an Air Force F-22 Raptor redirected one missile launched from a Navy submarine, and last month, the crew of a Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet directed a Tomahawk launched from a destroyer onto a target vessel at sea.
“This is potentially a game-changing capability for not a lot of cost,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said at a trade show in San Diego this month.
In view of these developments, Russian commanders most likely believe their work is entirely appropriate. They’re believed to want a weapon that could defeat NATO’s formidable air defenses and enable them to hit targets the way the U.S. uses its precision strike missiles and bombs, Kristensen said.
And as long as Russia’s new missile is not deployed or in production, it technically has not violated the INF.
“This is a political show,” Kristensen said. “One side does something, so other side has to do it too.”