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Standoff Over INF Treaty Enters New Phase As U.S. Reveals Details Of Russian Missile

A Russian Iskander-M missile is fired during exercises near St. Petersburg in September 2017. (illustrative photo)
A Russian Iskander-M missile is fired during exercises near St. Petersburg in September 2017. (illustrative photo)

The United States' top intelligence official has quietly revealed key new details about Russia's alleged violations of a bedrock Cold War nuclear treaty, an unexpected move that comes as U.S. officials push to build new support from European allies.

Congress, meanwhile, is gearing up for a new fight over U.S. arms-control policy, even as President Donald Trump's administration intends to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and has signaled lukewarm support for another even bigger nuclear treaty.

Taken together, the developments mark a new phase in the fight between Moscow and Washington over the fate of their two nuclear arsenals, and highlight fears that the two countries are sliding into a new arms race.

Beginning in 2014, the United States publicly accused Russia of violating the INF, which eliminated, among other things, an entire class of intermediate-range missiles.

In a statement published November 30, Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, for the first time revealed significantly more evidence from U.S. intelligence about the type of missile Russia tested and how it was tested. Coats said the Russia tested the missile from a fixed launcher and then a mobile launcher -- one within the range banned by the INF treaty.

"By putting the two types of tests together, Russia was able to develop a missile that flies to the intermediate ranges prohibited by the INF Treaty and launches from a ground-mobile platform," Coats said.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats
U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats

​"It's a big deal," says Thomas Moore, a former staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and longtime arms-control specialist who worked on multiple treaties. "Those are the relevant details you would need to say, ‘Yes, they have violated the INF.'"

It wasn't clear why exactly Coats had decided to reveal more specific evidence now. The State Department did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis echoed the tough rhetoric toward Moscow, saying the Kremlin had undermined trust on the issue of missile treaties.

"We are dealing with someone that we simply cannot trust," Mattis said during a speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California. "There is no doubt the relationship has worsened.

"We are dealing with Putin's duplicitous violation of the INF Treaty," Mattis said.

To Europe, With Evidence

Coats' announcement came as he headed to Europe to brief NATO allies on the U.S decision to withdraw from the INF. NATO foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, are expected on December 4 to announce a stronger condemnation of Russia's alleged violations -- and possibly a stronger endorsement of the U.S. evidence of the violation.

Two days earlier, however, the Dutch ministers of defense and foreign affairs said in a letter to Dutch lawmakers that the Netherlands had obtained proof of the Russian missile violation.

Vladimir Putin has spent a decade cheating on existing treaties like the INF, building up his nuclear arsenal, and rewriting the rule book on the nuclear triad."
-- U.S. Senator Tom Cotton

"The Netherlands can independently confirm that Russia has developed and is currently introducing a ground-based cruise weapon," said the letter, published on the Dutch parliament's website.

There was no independent confirmation of the report, but if true it would be first time that a NATO ally has publicly corroborated the U.S. allegations.

And on November 30, the same day as Coats' announcement, the German news magazine Der Spiegel, citing unnamed sources, said that U.S. officials had shared raw intelligence about the Russian missile.

According to the magazine, U.S. officials have not only shared satellite imagery of a flight of the banned Russian missile, but also evidence of the Russian companies and entities involved in the design and manufacture of the missile and its launchers.

Enter Congress

In Congress, meanwhile, attitudes toward Moscow have hardened markedly since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Last year, lawmakers included several provisions in the annual defense-policy legislation aimed at forcing Russia back into compliance with the INF.

One included the development of a new ground-launched cruise missile that would ultimately be deployed in Europe, similar to what happened in the mid-1980s, in the years before the INF Treaty was signed.

WATCH: Putin's 'Invincible' New Weapons (originally published March 1, 2018)

Putin's 'Invincible' New Weapons
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On November 29, a group of several Senate Democrats, and the chamber's only independent, introduced legislation that would block funding of such a missile unless Trump administration officials met certain conditions, including identifying where such missiles would be deployed in the first place.

"Congress must not fund new ground-launched or ballistic missiles that will fuel a dangerous arms race across the globe," one of the legislation's co-sponsors, Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat-Oregon), said in a statement.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, meanwhile, joined with Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney in linking the fate of the INF to that of the New START treaty, a larger, more comprehensive deal that limits the overall size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

We know all our weapons perfectly, and we know that none of them violates our treaty obligations, as we continue to insist."
-- Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov

New START is due to expire in 2021, though there is a provision that allows for it to be extended by mutual agreement.

In a joint statement, Cotton and Cheney called New START deeply flawed and called for cutting off all funding for U.S. compliance unless the Trump administrations comes up with a better way to ensure Russia wasn't cheating on the treaty.

"Vladimir Putin has spent a decade cheating on existing treaties like the INF, building up his nuclear arsenal, and rewriting the rule book on the nuclear triad by introducing new ways of launching a nuclear attack," Cotton said. "It's clear the old START model isn't going to cut it. This bill ensures all, not some, of Russia's nuclear arsenal is on the table in the next round of negotiations."

Both bills "are just awful," former Senate staffer Moore says. "One thinks that Russia needs New START and so, in order to get INF compliance, we should kill chances of extension. The other penalizes the U.S. for Russian violations. Neither bill denies Russia any benefit of its INF violations and nor does U.S. withdrawal."

While Republicans continue to control the Senate, ensuring that Democratic-backed legislation will have an uphill battle to passage, the Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives, and much of its agenda, in January.

In an interview with the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank, Adam Smith, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he opposed the Trump administration's withdrawal from the INF, as well as another proposal for a new series of small, low-yield nuclear weapons.

"I think we would benefit from greater dialogue with Russia. It's actually something that I do agree with the president on. I don't...necessarily agree with the way he's handled it, but as two of the greatest military powers, I think the whole world would benefit from us having more robust discussions and negotiations with the Russians on all of these issues," Smith said.

In Moscow, Russian officials have reacted sternly to the Trump withdrawal from the INF and signaled that Moscow would consider deploying its own missile on the territory of allies, such as Belarus, if the United States and NATO move to deploy similar weapons in Europe.

"We know all our weapons perfectly, and we know that none of them violates our treaty obligations, as we continue to insist," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow November 26.

Washington's European allies, meanwhile, have voiced growing concerns about the U.S. nuclear plans, even as many are troubled by Russia's increasingly belligerent military actions in Ukraine and along the borders of some NATO member states.

"The onus is on Russia. NATO does not want a new Cold War or a new arms race, and we will do all we can to avoid them. But Russia, too, must play its part," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an opinion article. "We remain ready to talk with Russia and to work together towards a better and more secure future."

Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based arms researcher, said there were still possibilities to keep the INF from falling apart entirely.

"The situation is not totally hopeless, but it would require a fairly high level of trust, strong commitment to preserve the treaty, and probably Russia's willingness to take some corrective actions," he wrote. "Alas, all these are in short supply these days."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.