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With Fraying U.S.-Russian Ties Comes Fraying Arms Control


Russian servicemen equip an Iskander tactical missile system at the Army-2015 international military-technical forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, in 2015.
Russian servicemen equip an Iskander tactical missile system at the Army-2015 international military-technical forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, in 2015.

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Congress is moving decisively to start dismantling some of the bedrock agreements of U.S.-Russian arms control, reflecting the dangerous state of relations between Washington and Moscow and raising the specter of a new arms race.

In a series of measures attached to the proposed $696 billion defense budget for 2018, Republican-led lawmakers have taken aim at the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as well as the Open Skies and even New START treaties.

All three are widely considered important cornerstones of stability for global arms control, and the measures' likely passage signals a sharp break from years of U.S. policy.

"It would deal a major blow to the U.S.-Russia arms-control architecture, which is already under significant strain," says Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, a Washington research group.

"These provisions would undermine U.S. security by eroding stability between the world's two largest nuclear powers, increasing the risks of nuclear competition, and further alienating allies already unsettled by [U.S. President Donald] Trump's commitment to their security," he adds.

Relations between Washington and Moscow have eroded over the past decade amid disputes over NATO expansion and U.S. missile defense, democratization and "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union, and, more recently, Moscow's interventions in Ukraine and Syria.

Trump took office this year praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and calling NATO "obsolete" as he sought to reverse the slide in relations with Moscow. But his administration has been dogged by congressional and criminal investigations into possible Russian meddling in the election and whether Trump associates colluded with Russian officials to influence the vote.

In Moscow, Russian officials have already anticipated passage of the new measures, warning of a new arms race.

"I think this would be worse for everyone because it instigates an attempt for an arms race, and precisely nobody stands to win from that," Vladimir Shamanov, a former airborne commander in chief who now heads the Defense Committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying on June 26.

INF Already Dead?

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) may be the agreement that is under most strain, the result of an escalating dispute over whether Russia has deployed a missile that violates the deal.

Signed by U.S. and Soviet leaders in 1987, the INF for the first time eliminated an entire class of missiles in Europe and set up a new framework for verifying compliance. It is considered a landmark deal that lifted fears of near-instant nuclear-missile attacks on European capitals.

The United States first formally accused Russia of developing a missile in violation of the INF in 2014, though intelligence experts said the system had been under development for several years prior to that.

Washington repeated its findings this year that Moscow was violating the treaty and, in March, General Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that Russia had begun deploying the weapon. He said it violated the "spirit and intent" of the treaty and that posed a threat to NATO.

"The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is, most likely, a dead pact walking," James Acton, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in May. Not only are the prospects of Russia returning to compliance with the treaty bleak, he said, but even serious discussions between Washington and Moscow about the treaty's implementation seem like a "diplomatic bridge too far right now."

Congressional Republicans have been angry for years, accusing the administration of then-President Barack Obama of hiding intelligence on the suspected Russian missile, even as the administration lobbied for New START, another treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2010 cutting the two countries' overall arsenals.

The measure included in the defense budget states that if Russia failed to comply with the INF terms within 15 months of the bill's enactment, "the U.S. would no longer be legally bound by the treaty as a matter of domestic law." It would authorize $50 million to develop a new, ground-launched, intermediate-range missile.

More Measures

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (Republican-California), meanwhile, attached a separate amendment to the defense bill that would punish Russia by imposing new sanctions and restrict Russia's access to technology to produce advanced conventional weapons, among other things.

A related amendment would restrict Trump's ability to extend the New START treaty after it expires in 2021 if the Trump administration could not certify that the INF dispute had been resolved.

The House was expected to start voting on the legislation this week.

On the Senate side, Tom Cotton (Republican-Arkansas) introduced a similar measure, called the Intermediate-Range Forces Treaty Preservation Act, which would allow the United States to "bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty and begin developing similar missile systems."

Closing The Skies

Moscow, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied Washington's accusations, demanding more details on the suspected INF weapon. It has also accused the United States of deploying missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, saying those launch systems violated the INF restrictions.

The House defense bill also denies funding related to the Open Skies Treaty, a 2002 agreement that allows the United States and Russia, along with 32 other countries, to conduct unarmed surveillance flights over each another's territory. The goal is to increase transparency and reduce the risk of misinterpreting another country's military actions.

Republicans have complained in recent months that Russia was using new, advanced technology sensors and cameras to conduct its U.S. overflights.

The Obama administration grappled with how to respond to the alleged Russia violations, with some top Pentagon officials saying they supported investing in new and updated weapons systems. That included new unmanned drone systems, new long-range cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and an updated nuclear gravity bomb called the B61-21.

Whither Trump?

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has sent mixed signals about its overall approach to Russia, though Trump himself has stated he wants to ensure the U.S. nuclear arsenal is at the "top of the pack."

The man nominated to the be No. 2 civilian official at the Pentagon, Patrick Shanahan, was pressed by senators at a recent hearing about his approach to Russian arms control.

After seemingly hedging in his oral testimony, Shanahan later revised his written statement for the committee, saying he would favor withdrawal from the INF treaty as a last resort.

"While I understand that the administration is reviewing a number of potential response options," he wrote, "it seems clear that the United States is operating with one hand tied behind its back since we are the only party to the treaty that is following the rules."

The White House on July 11 signaled its opposition to the proposal for a new missile.

"The Administration is currently developing an integrated diplomatic, military, and economic response strategy that maximizes pressure on Russia. It is also evaluating those military capabilities that are needed to protect our national security," the statement said. "This provision unhelpfully ties the Administration to a specific missile system, which would limit potential military response options."

Trump has also ordered a major review of U.S. nuclear policy, a common move by new administrations.

In his comments to Congress in March, Selva said Russian missiles threatened both NATO members and U.S. military infrastructure in Europe. "We'll factor that into the [Nuclear Posture Review] and look for leverage points to try to get the Russians to come back into compliance," he said.

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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.