Does Obama see the bear in the woods?

Greg Nash

As reported by The New York Times’s Michael Gordon last January, Russia is purportedly no longer complying with President Reagan’s first arms control treaty, the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The INF Treaty was the only nuclear agreement with Moscow that banned and eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons: ground-launched cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, along with their declared launchers and support equipment. INF-banned missiles were to be completely eliminated and never again designed, developed, flight-tested, produced and deployed.

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The Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee will hold an open hearing on these matters this Thursday.

 The Obama administration has stated that it “raised the issue” with Moscow and “briefed” U.S. allies in Europe. Other experts have called for a crash course in making new American cruise and ballistic missiles of INF-banned ranges. Calls have now come from both the right and the left for the administration to make public the specific details of Russian noncompliance. But the administration has done little to confront publicly the alleged Russian nuclear cheating. 

 It must go public with its concerns. In any compliance matter involving sensitive intelligence collection and U.S. national technical means, there is always a debate as to what can and cannot be revealed based on concerns about the sources and methods used to gather information. It is in these cases that the president of the United States must make a judgment call. 

 Consider that if President Kennedy was not able to share U-2 spy plane reconnaissance photos of Soviet SS-4 Sandal missiles, their transporter-erector launchers, and support equipment and personnel in Cuba in 1962, the United States would have not been able to deliver a crushing blow to Soviet deception at the United Nations in October 1962. Today, we ought not wait until hell freezes over before the administration starts to show the world just what kind of a threat we may now face from Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was serious when he said, “the collapse of Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the [20th] century” in 2005. He has been dismantling the entire post-Cold War security architecture, including suspension of Russian implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) in May 2007 and testing related waters during the war with Georgia in 2008.

 Putin has now annexed a sovereign state’s territory in Crimea and continues to destabilize Ukraine. This aggression, when coupled with reported Russian INF Treaty noncompliance, demonstrates that we now face in Moscow as dedicated, if not as communist, an enemy confronting the United States and its allies as we did during the Cold War. 

 The most important part of the Kremlin’s publicly reported INF-missile gambit is how closely it mirrors Reagan’s dual-track strategy of the 1980s. Reagan’s policy was to deploy and negotiate. He gained agreement in NATO to deploy a limited number of Pershing II missiles in Europe while offering to negotiate with Moscow to reduce and limit its SS-20s. Germany went a step further to induce Russian agreement, offering to dismantle its Pershing IA missiles only when both the United States and the Soviet Union eliminated all their intermediate and shorter range missiles. The strategy worked, and the result was the INF Treaty.

 If reports are true, Russia could be undertaking a Reagan-like approach to intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Obama, on the other hand, continues to advocate for nuclear reductions with no comment on reported Russian violations. Obama went to Berlin last summer, and rather than challenge anyone to tear down a wall, instead gave the same speech he gave in Prague in 2009. It is possible Obama knew about alleged Russian INF Treaty noncompliance even as he publicly endorsed deep nuclear reductions. Russia smirked: They know that U.S. nuclear modernization plans are unclear, at best, and that Washington keeps trimming its missile defense plans. With little or no effort, Russia is waiting out the inevitable decrepitude of American nuclear forces to the point where no negotiation is needed. 

 The Kremlin’s strategy offers a reflection on Obama’s nuclear legacy that is not pretty. Obama still has time to increase pressure on Russia over its alleged INF Treaty violations. The first step would be by making them public.

Moore is a senior fellow at The Lugar Center, and was for more than a decade a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed are his entirely and do reflect those of anyone other than the author.