The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On Ukraine, President Obama should be more like Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter addresses a Joint Session of Congress, announcing the results of the Camp David Accords. (Library of Congress)
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Putin’s Crimea annexation and proxy occupation of Eastern Ukraine have brought U.S.-Russia relations to a low last seen during the Cold War.

The last time Moscow behaved this belligerently, it was stopped by one man who stood firm and adopted policies that ultimately reversed the aggression. His name was Jimmy Carter.

President Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by imposing stiff sanctions on Moscow, arming Afghans who were resisting the Red Army, and asking the Senate to suspend consideration of the then-pending SALT II strategic arms control treaty.

This last step was especially painful for Carter, because he was a strong proponent of nuclear arms control and had invested enormous political capital negotiating and seeking Senate approval of the treaty.


In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Obama has also imposed sanctions. But unlike Carter, he’s pressed ahead on his arms control agenda with Moscow.

Much criticism has been directed at Obama’s refusal to provide Ukraine with the wherewithal to defend itself, but his unwillingness to let Russian actions divert him from his arms control agenda—particularly his quest to build a “world without nuclear weapons”—may be sending an even more important signal of weakness and strategic confusion to Russia.

Certainly, no one can credibly argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a potential partner in building a nuclear-free world. Addressing himself to Western critics of his dismemberment of Ukraine on Aug. 29, Putin stated: “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words—this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability.”

This followed his announcement two weeks earlier that Russia would deploy nuclear-capable missiles and bombers in Russian-annexed Crimea.

More ominously still, Ukraine’s defense minister reports that “the Russian side has threatened on several occasions . . . that, in the case of continued resistance they are prepared to use a tactical nuclear weapon against us.”

In truth, Putin has never had any use for Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda, except as a vehicle for advancing Russia’s strategic interests.

Putin’s tactics were on display during negotiations on the New START treaty in 2009 and 2010. At the outset, Obama offered Russia a very good deal, essentially proposing to legally oblige the United States to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces to parity with the substantially lower level that Russia was then deploying. In other words, only America would have to reduce its nuclear forces; Russia could keep its existing deployed forces intact.

Instead of immediately grabbing that offer, Moscow refused, explaining that it couldn’t possibly agree unless Obama made additional concessions with regard to missile defenses, diminished verification and other issues. It took a year of hard negotiating and additional U.S. concessions to finally persuade Russia to accept a deal that required only the United States to cut its deployed forces.

We now know — thanks to a formal determination by the Obama administration in July — that throughout the New START negotiation, Russia was illegally testing an intermediate-range missile. Such tests violate the INF treaty of 1987, which prohibited the possession or testing of such missiles. These missiles can be used to attack our allies in Europe with so-called “tactical nuclear warheads.” The purpose of the INF treaty was to diminish the threat of nuclear war in Europe by prohibiting missiles that can deliver these kinds of warheads.

Russia’s evident preparation to reintroduce missiles capable of delivering tactical nuclear warheads is alarming, especially considering the overwhelming numerical advantage that Russia maintains in such warheads. While the precise numbers are classified, open source estimates suggest that Russia maintains roughly a 10-to-1 advantage in tactical warheads, with the U.S. stockpile numbering in the hundreds and Russia’s in the thousands.

When deployments of both tactical and strategic nuclear warheads are counted, it is unquestionable that, numerically speaking, Russia today has a substantial nuclear advantage over the United States.

Despite overwhelming evidence that Putin has no interest in building a nuclear-free world, the Obama administration persists in pushing its nuclear disarmament agenda with Moscow. Last year Obama proposed that the United States and Russia both cut their strategic nuclear weapons a further third below the level set in New START. Russia dismissed this proposal out of hand, but as recently as last month White House officials were urging Russia to reconsider. Indeed, they still have not ruled out making such cuts unilaterally should Russia persist in rejecting mutually-agreed reductions.

Such displays of idealism in the face of Russia’s nuclear-backed aggression merely encourage Putin’s belief that Obama does not have the backbone to stand up to him. Rather than pushing for further nuclear cuts, Obama should, like President Carter, put his arms control agenda on hold until Russian behavior improves.

The corresponding move to Carter’s decision to set aside approval of SALT II would be for Obama to suspend implementation of the reductions mandated by New START. This would not be the same as violating or terminating New START. The force levels specified in the treaty are not required to be achieved until 2018. The United States is now entering onto a glide path to complete those reductions by 2018. Suspension of implementation would amount to postponing entry onto this glide path until Russia changes course.

Such a suspension would underscore to Moscow that the advantageous deal they achieved in the New START Treaty—requiring reductions in America’s deployed nuclear forces but not in Russia’s—is being put in jeopardy by Russia’s nuclear-backed aggression against Ukraine. Further, because of the fundamentally advantageous nature of the treaty for Russia, Putin could not effectively retaliate by suspending implementation of Russia’s New START reductions, as the treaty requires no reductions by Russia of its deployed forces.

Most importantly, Obama needs to make clear to Putin that, contrary to what the Russian president appears to believe, when confronted by Russian aggression and treaty violations, he is no less a hard-headed realist than Jimmy Carter.