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Opinion Russia has deployed a banned nuclear missile. Now the U.S. threatens to build one.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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The Trump administration is trying to fix a badly broken nuclear-arms-control treaty with Russia, which has been violating the agreement for years. And part of the U.S. plan to counter Russia’s building of treaty-violating missiles is to develop some treaty-violating missiles of its own.

The U.S. government has known since 2012 that Russia was in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Signed by President Ronald Reagan, the bilateral U.S.-Russian pact bars construction, testing or deployment of missiles or delivery systems with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. For years, Republicans in Congress pressed the Obama administration to confront the Russians.

Last November, Obama administration officials met with their Russian counterparts to demand that they admit to building a new cruise missile in violation of the treaty, but the Russian side denied it. In February, U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia took another step forward and actually deployed the missile, which could threaten large parts of Europe.

Now, the Trump team is trying again to confront Moscow, but this time with what they see as new leverage. The administration is supporting congressional efforts to fund research and development for a U.S. cruise missile with the same capability, to show the Russians they aren’t they only ones who can play that game.

The defense policy bill Congress is expected to pass this month would authorize the Defense Department to spend $58 million to counter Russia’s INF violations, including by developing a new ground-launched cruise missile, a direct push for the administration to raise the stakes with Moscow. Developing the missile doesn’t put the United States in breach of the treaty; actually building it would.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has called for another meeting of what’s called the Special Verification Commission, a forum where U.S. and Russian officials can try to sort out the conflict, two U.S. officials told me.

Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia, and Christopher Ford, the NSC’s senior director for nonproliferation, briefed Congress on the plan last month, congressional officials said. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis briefed NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Nov. 9.

“The discussion included a consideration of the Russian Federation’s violation of the Intermediate[-Range] Nuclear Forces Treaty and our collective efforts to bring Russia back to compliance,” Mattis told reporters. “This is absolutely necessary to sustain confidence in the arms-control agreement.”

Democrats in Congress are supportive of the administration’s efforts to save the treaty but skeptical that moving towards a U.S. version of the Russian treaty-busting missile will have the desired effect.

“We know that Russia has not been in compliance with the INF. We want them to stay in the INF,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) told me. “I’m not in favor of us accelerating the conflict by us developing something that could be in conflict. So I’m not sure it’s helpful.”

Former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation Tom Countryman told me that by moving in the same direction as the Russians, the Trump administration might actually be playing into their hands.

“In a sense that’s what the Russians want us to do, to provoke us into violating the treaty and suffering the results,” he said. “Would I be surprised to see this president fall into that trap? No. But I hope he doesn’t.”

Arms-control advocates are encouraged that the Trump team is looking to save the treaty rather than just trash it, but they are also skeptical of the plan to develop a U.S. version of the missile. For one, they say, it’s not clear European countries would support what amounts to an escalation in their region. Also, as a negotiating tactic, it’s not likely to work.

“It would be a mistake to believe that the pursuit of a INF-noncompliant cruise missile by the United States will compel Russia to acknowledge and rectify its suspected INF violations,” said Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball, who has discussed this issue with U.S. and Russian officials in recent weeks.

But critics of the Trump plan admit they don’t have any better solutions. If the Russian government won’t even admit it is in violation, there’s little hope they will negotiate a fix in good faith. If there’s no agreement on the facts, there can be no agreement on the solution.

The Trump administration should move forward with its carrot-and-stick approach, if only to be able to say it tried to work with Moscow. But when that fails, Trump will face a decision: Keep a broken treaty with Putin or risk a nuclear-arms race.