Can Trump Handle The Challenge Of Russia's Intermediate Range Nuclear Weapons?

NIke Air Defense Missiles
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Russia has shown willingness to test the United States’ resolve on many fronts. Though the daily news coverage has highlighted many of these issues, it has failed to adequately cover one crucial case: Russia’s dangerous violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

This omission is a mistake. The INF Treaty is the single area where Russia’s recent actions are directly related to the prospect of nuclear war. President Trump must show leadership and address this challenge head-on.

The INF Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and President Mikhail Gorbachev, prohibits the possession, production, and flight-testing of ground-launched nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. The Treaty, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1988, has served as a nuclear arms control cornerstone ever since.

The United States first declared that Russia was in violation of its INF Treaty obligations in 2014. The Obama Administration sought to bring Russia back into compliance as part of a holistic approach to addressing Russia’s behavior. These steps included increased military spending in Europe and a diplomatic push for compliance led by the State Department. While these actions were well intentioned, President Obama’s need to maintain a basic working relationship with Russia in Syria made it difficult to levy a harsher, more effective response to the INF violation.

A new approach is necessary. In March 2017, General Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that Russia has now deployed intermediate range ground-launched cruise missiles, known as SSC-8 missiles, which could threaten Europe and Asia. These weapons are in clear violation of the INF Treaty. Hence, Russia’s decision undermines strategic stability, increases risk to U.S. allies and partners, and poses an indirect threat to the United States itself.

To deal with the problem, some may advise immediate withdrawal from the Treaty. However, this would be irresponsible. Such an approach lets Russia “off the hook” for its violation, which could embolden Russia to push the limit further elsewhere. This would also undermine other treaties the U.S. maintains with Russia. After all, if one party can violate a treaty with no consequence, what value does a treaty really have?

Others might recommend that the United States develop and deploy its own treaty-violating missile system in Europe.  While this strategy might be satisfying, it simply does not fully consider the risks inherent in such an approach. Not only would developing a new INF-violating nuclear weapons system cost billions of dollars and provide only questionable military benefit, but it would also be difficult to reach NATO consensus on where such missiles would be located.

Such steps may be premature in any case. Because Russia will not admit to violating the Treaty, it presumably still places some value in the Treaty itself, thus opening a potential door for negotiation.

So what to do? We recommend that the United States remain in the Treaty for now, but encourage Russia to return to compliance through intense, relentless diplomatic pressure.For such a strategy to be successfully carried out, President Trump must exercise leadership on the issue. If he is up to the challenge, here’s what he should do.

First, President Trump must raise the INF violation at every engagement with Russian officials. The topic should be central to all senior-level discussions – including any interactions with President Putin. No senior U.S. official should meet with his or her Russian counterpart without discussing Russia’s INF violation. Similarly, President Trump and other Administration officials should frequently speak publicly about the issue and make clear that it is a priority in the White House.

Second, in parallel to this diplomatic effort, President Trump should direct the Administration to highlight the costs of not cooperating with the United States. These measures could include preparatory studies on missiles the U.S. could deploy if unconstrained by the INF Treaty, amplified cyber intrusions in Russia to gather intelligence, and formal discussions among NATO members about the INF violation and nuclear deterrence, such as at the upcoming May NATO Leaders’ meeting.

Throughout this process, President Trump should be prepared for these efforts to come up short. The Russians are tough – President Putin learned to negotiate in the KGB, arguably a more unforgiving classroom than the board rooms of Manhattan real estate firms. Thus, President Trump must be prepared to ultimately resolve the issue directly between himself and President Putin with clear, strong language. President Trump must also maintain the moral high ground as bullying a bully will only escalate an already tense situation.

Nevertheless, if this strategy does not change Russia’s behavior to the point that it begins to make verifiable steps toward compliance, the United States must consider withdrawing from the Treaty. Allowing Russia to remain in violation of the Treaty indefinitely undermines the value of all other arms control agreements. Withdrawal – only after an intense and sustained diplomatic effort – would leave the United States in a stronger position with our Allies and in the eyes of the international community, knowing that a good faith effort was made to reduce the risk of nuclear war.