Alarms sounded on Russia nuclear treaty

Lawmakers are sounding the alarm over Russia’s arms control commitments and introducing measures to ensure the White House keeps a close watch on Moscow.

A provision in the Senate’s $514 billion fiscal 2015 defense policy bill would require the White House to more quickly notify lawmakers of violations by parties to existing arms control agreements, in particular an existing nuclear deal with Russia, the New START treaty.

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"We want to be more comfortable that we're being notified, and we've drafted language to achieve that goal," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), told reporters Thursday, announcing the new language.

International experts say the Senate measure is targeted at Russia, with lawmakers skeptical Moscow will honor its arms control promises amid the crisis in Ukraine.

The Senate measure could also be a “pre-emptive effort” to head off further GOP efforts to dismantle the administration’s nuclear disarmament work, said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The new provision comes amid lingering discontent among Republicans over the New START nuclear arms agreement.

Republicans have opposed the treaty since it was signed in 2010 by Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and have repeatedly attempted to disrupt its implementation through legislative means, including stalling its ratification.

Set to expire in 2018, the treaty requires the two sides to cut their fielded nuclear weapons down to 1,550 warheads. It also limits their respective deployed nuclear delivery vehicles to 700.

Republicans have claimed it limits future U.S. plans for missile defense and weakens the country’s nuclear deterrent.

Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and its belligerent posture along Ukraine’s border have emboldened the agreement’s critics, who say that now is not the time for the U.S. to reduce its nuclear stockpile. They also argue that Russia’s military actions raise worries Moscow will seek to evade other treaties.

The 2015 defense authorization bill approved Thursday by the House also included an amendment by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) that would freeze funds to implement the nuclear arms compact until Moscow eases pressure on Ukraine.

Lamborn’s measure calls for the Pentagon to certify that Moscow "is respecting Ukrainian sovereignty and is no longer violating" the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and the Conventional Forces in Europe treaties before the U.S. can execute START.

The Colorado lawmaker defended his measure saying that the Kremlin's recent actions have proven it is “clearly not trustworthy.” He called Putin a “serial treaty violator.”

The White House, though, has said that the conflict over Ukraine should not cast doubt on nuclear disarmament efforts and has encouraged Russia to follow through.

"We see no reason that the tensions that exist over Ukraine should in any way obstruct the path toward fulfilling the commitments that we have made with the Russians to reduce nuclear weapons on both sides," said Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control, in March at a forum.

Levin on Thursday did not specify how fast the administration would have to notify senators if there’s any evidence of a “substantial or significant violation” but the resolution of ratification that accompanied New START stipulates they should receive four updates per year.

The full text of the Senate bill is expected to be released next week.