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Opinion The U.S. ambassador to NATO just threatened to ‘take out’ a new Russian missile. It’s a bad idea.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison briefs the media in Brussels on Tuesday. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Edward Lucas is senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Nine hours is a long time in the world of nuclear diplomacy. That is how long it took for Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison to tweet a clarification about her ambiguous remarks, made Tuesday, that appeared to threaten Russia with a preemptive strike if it deployed a new missile banned under a landmark arms-control treaty.

“The question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering” the weapons in question, she said. “And at that point we would then be looking at a capability to take out a missile that could hit any of our countries in Europe and hit America in Alaska.”

The U.S. ambassador to NATO was right to raise the issue. American officials have been grumbling for a decade, initially privately and now publicly, about the new Russian weapon — a ground-launched cruise missile, or GLCM. It breaches the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, as part of a cascade of arms-control and other deals that marked the end of the Cold War. Russia regards the INF Treaty as obsolete and argues that U.S. missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe require a response. What should the United States do?

The toughest and most tempting response would be to tear up the INF Treaty and develop an American counterpart to the GLCM. Congress has already voted money for research and development of a new weapon (which the treaty allows). The administration is leaning that way.

But this approach would suit the Kremlin game plan perfectly. It would give Russia a perfect excuse to renounce the INF Treaty altogether, removing one of the last props of the post-Cold-War arms-control era (others, such as the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, have long since splintered).

Worse, deploying the new weapons in Europe would prompt just the row between the United States and its European allies that Russia seeks. The Kremlin’s political warfare with the West is based on playing divide and rule. Tactics include clandestine social-media efforts, politically loaded energy and infrastructure projects, and diplomatic gambits. Just as with Soviet efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, the aim is to make Europeans see the United States as a meddling and reckless.

The big difference from that era is that there is now no military need for the United States to match the Russians rocket for rocket. NATO hugely outspends Russia on military hardware. The United States already has a stealthy air-launched cruise missile, the JASSM. It could deploy more of those on warplanes based at airfields in Britain, or send naval vessels armed with seaborne intermediate-range missiles to European waters. Sensor and surveillance technology has developed, too, meaning that the United States and its NATO allies now have a far better idea of how Russia and other adversaries are moving their land-based missiles around. This is not the early 1980s, when boosting the U.S. missile presence in Europe was a vital test of Western willpower against a militarily superior adversary.

Instead, the United States should plug military gaps that actually matter. The biggest problem facing NATO is military mobility: Infrastructure bottlenecks and bureaucratic snags mean that moving armed forces around Europe takes weeks, rather than the days or hours needed in a crisis. The equipment and expertise accumulated during the Cold War are long gone. One solution to that would be to beef up the U.S. presence in Poland with an extra combat sustainment brigade, based at the airfield in Powidz. Logisticians are unglamorous and a lot less lucrative for defense contractors than developing a new missile. Nor would their presence constitute the permanent, showy U.S. base that Poland yearns for. But a large sign reading “Fort Trump” would doubtless attract favorable attention in the White House.

The United States should also resist pressure to save the INF Treaty by removing its missile-defense bases in Poland and Romania. These are not directed at Russia (look at the globe: If Vladimir Putin orders a nuclear strike against the United States, the missiles will fly over the Arctic, not over Eastern Europe). But they do protect Europe from a possible Iranian strike. The administration should continue to resist any attempt by Russia, or its European cheerleaders, to draw irrelevant links between these bases and the INF Treaty.

Anybody can misspeak. But Ambassador Hutchison should remember that arms control is inherently a boring subject, and the diplomats’ job is to keep it that way.