The U.S. ambassador to NATO set off alarm bells Tuesday when she suggested that the United States might “take out” Russian missiles that U.S. officials say violate a landmark arms control treaty.

Although Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison’s comments were somewhat ambiguous, arms control experts said they could be interpreted to mean a preemptive strike. Such a move could lead to nuclear war. 

Only after the comments drew a furious response from the Russian Foreign Ministry did Hutchison clarify on Twitter that she “was not talking about preemptively striking Russia.” But the diplomatic damage was already done.

“The impression is that people making such claims are unaware of the degree of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters, the Interfax news agency reported. “Who authorized this lady to make such allegations? The American people? Do ordinary Americans know that they are paying out of their pockets for so-called diplomats who behave so aggressively and destructively?”

Russia denies violating the treaty.

Asked during a news conference at NATO headquarters what the United States might do about a new class of Russian missiles that appear to violate the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Hutchison said, “The countermeasures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty.”


U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison briefs the media ahead of a NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Oct. 2. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Before Hutchison clarified her position, more than nine hours after her initial remarks, it was unclear whether she meant that the United States would target Russia’s banned missile installations if Moscow doesn’t come back into compliance, or whether she was warning that the United States would enhance its missile defenses so it could take out any banned missiles Russia decided to launch at U.S. or allied targets. The United States currently has limited ability to defend against cruise missile threats.

“The question was what would you do if this continues to a point where we know that they are capable of delivering” the banned missiles, Hutchison 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 treaty, which the United States and the Soviet Union signed in 1987, prohibits the production and deployment of nuclear and conventional missiles that fly from 500 to 5,500 kilometers. It applies to ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

NATO defense ministers plan to address the alleged Russian violations at a Brussels meeting on Wednesday and Thursday.

Hutchison, a former Republican senator from Texas, has been President Trump’s ambassador to NATO for just over a year.

“She does threaten preemption. She just didn’t mean it,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

“Welcome to NATO! You have one job: to not start nuclear war with Russia,” he joked. “As an expert, I am used to politicians, including politicians who have been appointed as ambassadors, badly mangling simple things. So my default assumption was that she was badly mangling pretty common talking points.” 

Hutchison’s comments set off a flurry of anxiety on Twitter, where arms control experts speculated about what she meant. Several pointed out that taking “countermeasures” against undeployed missiles that are still in development by definition would be a preemptive strike.

Russia has long feared that U.S. missile shields could be used covertly to preemptively target the man who controls the Russian nuclear arsenal — Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although U.S. officials have long denied that is the purpose of their missile defense efforts, Hutchison’s comments fed directly into the Russian concerns.

Zakharova said that Russian military experts were preparing a more technical response to Hutchison.

During the final years of the Obama administration, the State Department regularly stated that Russia was violating the treaty but stopped short of specifying which Russian weapon was going against the pact. Last year, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Russia had violated the treaty’s “spirit and intent” by deploying a ground-based cruise missile.

Russia has accused the United States of violating the treaty with its Aegis Ashore missile defense installations in Romania and a similar installation still in the works in Poland, claiming that those platforms could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles in violation of the treaty. The United States has denied those accusations, saying the system launches only SM-3 interceptor missiles not covered by the pact.

Efforts by U.S. diplomats to bring Russia back into compliance with the treaty, including meetings between American and Russian officials as part of the pact’s enforcement mechanism, have so far come up short. Under direction from Congress and to ratchet up pressure, the Pentagon has begun drawing up plans for a banned missile that the United States could deploy quickly if the treaty formally falls apart.

The treaty bans only production, testing and use of intermediate-range missiles; research and development isn’t prohibited.

The dispute over the INF Treaty has also prompted the U.S. military to consider stepping up defenses against cruise missile threats from Russia in Europe. The Pentagon had drawn up a draft of the Trump administration’s new missile defense policy early this year, but top officials sent it back to the drawing board after demanding that it more thoroughly address the Russian cruise missile threat in Europe.

One possible step would be to stand up a better sensor network that could track any Russian cruise missiles from the moment of their launch at a European target. The Pentagon is also looking at technologies that could be put in place to shoot down missiles heading toward specific targets — an effort Hutchison might have been referencing in her remarks.

“This treaty is in danger because of Russia’s actions,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters. “All allies agree that the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the treaty. It is therefore urgent that Russia addresses these concerns in a substantial and transparent manner.”

paul.sonne@washpost.com

Sonne reported from Washington.