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Congress cannot continue to ignore the Russian nuclear threat

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As Congress reconvenes, its main challenge is to pass a budget for fiscal 2018 in the face of the obduracy of many members of Congress and the White House. Once again Congress may punt, revealing its growing incapacity to meet national challenges, not least, adequately funding our nuclear enterprise and overall national defense. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have already made clear that another continuing resolution undermines our defense capability in a world of increasing threats and their observation pertains equally to both the nuclear and conventional weapons agenda.

The U.S. has recently begun modernizing its nuclear weapons consonant with President Obama’s pledge to do so in return for adoption of the New Strategic Arms Reduction (START) Treaty. Since it is now budget time many voices have emerged arguing for termination of that modernization and what amounts to unilateral disarmament. These arguments must be rejected. This is not because of my fondness for nuclear weapon but because it is the right thing to do. Most, if not all, of these calls for unilateral disarmament appear to be innocent of any consideration of global strategic realities and ascribe far too much responsibility to Washington for the nuclear dimension of current crises.

While North Korea’s mounting missile and nuclear capabilities are rattling governments from Asia to the U.S., the Russian threat is of no less, if not greater, importance. First, Moscow has broken every treaty, not just arms control, it has signed with the U.S. and its neighbors. These include the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty in Europe, the NATO-Russian Founding Act, the Tashkent Treaty with other Post-Soviet states as well as separate treaties with Ukraine and the four-party Budapest agreement with Ukraine, the UK and the U.S. about Ukraine’s nuclear inheritance.

Regarding the New START treaty, Moscow deploys over 150 nuclear weapons above this treaty’s ceilings, according to current figures. Moreover, given the fact that Russia is now producing over 20 different types of nuclear weapons and these weapons are a priority of Russian military production there is little reason to cease our own modernization now since Moscow may well break this treaty too. Furthermore, these programs are modernizing all three legs of Russia’s triad as well as new weapons like hypersonic glide vehicles to give Moscow a tailored nuclear capability to use short-range, intermediate range and long-range nuclear weapons as needed, in a first-strike or even preventive mode. The fates of Ukraine and Georgia and the spate of unending nuclear threats, overflights and submarine deployments we have seen since 2014 also demonstrates that Putin hardly trails behind Kim Jong Un in the frequency and diversity of his nuclear threat making.

Moreover, Russia’s official stance on future arms control is essentially unilateral U.S nuclear and conventional disarmament. Moscow opposes our nuclear modernization, our global precision strike conventional capability and the missile-defense systems that protect not only us but also our allies from Iran and North Korea. And despite innumerable briefings, Russia refuses to believe its own analysts’ conclusions that missile defenses cannot destroy Russia’s nuclear capability.

Furthermore, Moscow has retreated from its earlier stance that in future talks China must participate to reduce the nuclear opacity that shrouds China’s actual capabilities. As part of what appears to be an ever-strengthening alliance with China, Russia now proposes strategic stability talks only with the U.S. based on its definition of that concept, a definition that includes our high-precision sand global strike conventional capabilities. Independent Russian analyses by credible analysts like Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Dvorkin ascribe many more nuclear weapons to China than does our government. And, in fact, nobody knows for sure the full extent of Chinese capabilities because we have tolerated Beijing’s free riding on arms control to stay out of the process and escape its restrictions embodied in earlier treaties. Moscow’s proposal would continue this negative situation.

Finally, Congress is debating whether or not to recommend withdrawing from the INF treaties. Such debates require the greatest amount of sober and judicious thought we can amass. So without advocating a specific conclusion to that complex debate we should nonetheless consider the history of past Soviet and Russian violations. They only ceased when the U.S. not only exposed them but also displayed its intention to renounce the treaties on which these violations were based, forcing Moscow to retract its violation.

Indeed, one wishes the advocates of unilateral disarmament had better studied their history.

As President Carter’s Secretary of Defense Harold Brown memorably observed, when we build nuclear weapons Moscow does so too and when we stop they keep on building. That is no less true now, and Moscow’s readiness to threaten or use them is not far enough behind Pyongyang’s to justify complacency. Whatever else Congress does, it should ponder the lessons of history and of the contemporary strategic scene and fund this program as needed.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
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