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Opinion Is Trump giving Putin a pass on a missile deployment?

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK /KREMLIN POOL via European Pressphoto Agency)

The Associated Press reports:

A senior U.S. general on Wednesday accused Russia of deploying a land-based cruise missile in violation of “the spirit and intent” of a nuclear arms treaty and charged that Moscow’s intention is to threaten U.S. facilities in Europe and the NATO alliance.
“We believe that the Russians have deliberately deployed it in order to pose a threat to NATO and to facilities within the NATO area of responsibility,” Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Selva said he sees no indication that Moscow intends to return to compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans an entire class of weapons — all land-based cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,410 miles). The treaty was a landmark in arms control in the final years of the Cold War.

President Trump previously has talked about entering into some new nuclear deal with Russia, but one wonders what the point would be if Russia is blatantly violating an existing agreement. He seems to have grudgingly accepted the advice of his Cabinet secretaries that existing sanctions must be maintained.

“Russia has violated multiple international treaties in the past 10 years, including the INF and START treaties, by developing missile systems explicitly banned under those agreements,” Russia expert Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council told me. “This latest violation of the INF treaty is perhaps most egregious, because it pertains to a fully developed land-based missile system rather than the development of parts. The Obama administration accused Russia of violating the INF treaty and senior defense and State department officials warned Congress of Russia’s non-compliance.” However, she notes that “there have been no real consequences for Russia’s pattern of delinquency. The Trump administration now has an opportunity to correct that short sighted policy.”

The House of Representatives intelligence committee will hold an open hearing March 20 on the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (Video: Reuters)

Congress surely would be supportive of such a move.

In a report on keeping Europe “whole and free” for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, former ambassador Eric Edelman and Whitney M. McNamara advise (p. 47) that “NATO should consider . . . bringing back a version of the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) and a new ALCM. The United States, for example, might consider developing a lighter, shorter-range version of its Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) missile to replace its aging ALCM. These weapons could become part of the NATO inventory delivered by dual-capable aircraft.” They continue, “The United States could also re-field tactical nuclear weapons in existing 155-mm howitzer battalions in the Baltics that are unable to hit deep Russian targets, enabling NATO forces to occupy a key position on a lower rung on the escalatory ladder. In addition, the United States should start the research and development of a new Pershing-3 ballistic missile.” Their bottom line: “In light of existing Russian breaks from the [INF] agreement, the United States should consider eventually withdrawing from the INF Treaty.”

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When news of the deployment first came to light last month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a blistering statement. “As Vladimir Putin continues his testing of the new administration, Russia’s deployment of nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty is a significant military threat to U.S. forces in Europe and our NATO allies,” he said. “Congress has made clear in the last two defense authorization bills that Russia’s treaty violation requires a meaningful response. In light of the most recent developments, it is time for the new administration to take immediate action to enhance our deterrent posture in Europe and protect our allies.” He urged that the United States “continue the ongoing modernization of U.S. nuclear forces and ensure that NATO’s nuclear deterrence forces are survivable, well-exercised, and increasingly ready to counter Russian nuclear doctrine, which calls for the first use of nuclear weapons.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a frequent Trump defender, on Wednesday issued a statement that read: “Russia has violated the spirit and, in fact, the very letter of the INF Treaty. As General Selva has said, if we want Russia to come back into compliance, then we have to increase our leverage—plain and simple. That’s why we should beef up our nuclear forces in Europe, and we can start by passing the INF Treaty Preservation Act.” He has co-sponsored a bill to “take steps to bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty and begin developing similar missile systems,” very much in line with the CSBA report’s recommendations. It would be helpful if he would also call for the president to end his silence on the matter and issue his first critical words of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Democrats have been more direct, reflecting the dramatic shift among Democrats on Russia. In extensive comments on the floor calling for a tougher stance toward Russia, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) enumerated Russian acts of aggression. He included this: “Just last month, Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty when they illegally launched a cruise missile – showing no regard for an agreement that has been a hallmark for nuclear security cooperation for nearly four decades.” He re-upped his call for Congress to act if the administration will not. (“Russia’s destabilizing behavior should make absolutely clear to the President of the United States that the Russian Federation is not our friend. But when the President hesitates to acknowledge this reality or address such aggressive behavior, it is up to Congress to act.”)

Despite the president’s refusal to utter any negative words about Putin, he has picked a crop of Russian hawks, most recently former Utah governor Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Russia. Russia hawk Fiona Hill was recently brought on as the White House senior director for Europe and Russia, joining national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who have all been outspoken about Russia’s international conduct. Among all of them, as well as Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson (whose presence is lightly felt but who appears to be within the mainstream foreign policy consensus on Russia), surely could come up with recommendations to respond to the missile deployment.

And yet nothing much has happened. Perhaps the administration lacks a viable policy-creation process to reach consensus on a major policy issue. Perhaps the president has indicated he doesn’t want to rock the boat with Putin, whose disinformation campaign helped him in the U.S. presidential campaign. Maybe Trump senior adviser and Putin fan Stephen K. Bannon has nixed any response. Whatever the hangup, if the president really wants to dispel the image that he’s a Putin stooge and show he can put “America first,” he would demand options and move ahead forcefully. He would surely demonstrate a contrast with his predecessor, whom he has defamed with unsubstantiated accusations of “wiretapping.” So what’s the holdup, then?