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The Russian missile treaty violation: The Obama administration has emboldened the Putin regime

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By Paula A. Desutter
Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Obama administration has known about a Russian violation of a major arms control treaty for four years but has only now reported the violation to Congress, as required by law.

Russia has been testing a new nuclear cruise missile banned by the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles Treaty (INF Treaty), signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on Dec. 8, 1987. This treaty prohibits Russia and the United States from possessing, producing and flight-testing intermediate and short-range nuclear ballistic or cruise missiles.

All declared missiles were eliminated by May 1991 and therefore the inspection regime ended. The treaty and provisions for monitoring by national technical means (NTM) are of unlimited duration.

The Obama administration acknowledged the violation only after a Jan. 30 article in The New York Times revealed that Russia had been testing its new cruise missile, the R-500, since 2008. But the article reported it was not until the end of 2011 that it was clear there was a compliance concern.

However, we now know the Obama administration has known since September 2010, if not earlier. During his February 2014 Senate confirmation hearing, Brian McKeon, Obama's nominee for a senior Pentagon post, revealed that on the eve of the Foreign Relations Committee's Sept. 16, 2010, vote on the New START Treaty, the intelligence community provided information regarding “Russian activity that appears to be inconsistent with the INF Treaty.” As Vice President Joe Biden's lead negotiator on New START and an Obama administration liaison with the Senate during the New START ratification process, McKeon was in a position to know.

The first Obama administration report, a much watered-down version of the more than 500-page report essentially completed at the end of the Bush administration, was submitted in July 2010. Of the INF Treaty, the July 2010 report concluded: “The Parties to the Treaty last met in the Special Verification Commission in October 2003. There have been no issues raised in the intervening period.” The same language was used in the 2011 and 2012 reports.

Since the administration knew about, but had not raised, the R-500 issue with Russia, the 2010, 2011 and 2012 language was technically true but misleading. But by 2013, the administration, especially Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State responsible for producing the reports, who had been nominated to be undersecretary of State in May 2013, had a problem.

Congress was demanding action. According to the January 2014 New York Times article, the INF Treaty issue was first raised with Russia in May 2013 by Gottemoeller. So, while the July 12, 2013, report retained: “The Parties to the Treaty last met in the Special Verification Commission in October 2003,” they changed “There have been no issues raised in the intervening period” to “There were no issues raised during this reporting period.” The reporting period was Jan. 1, 2012, through Dec. 31, 2012. This was clearly purposeful and clearly hid the truth.

A second INF Treaty issue concerns a new nuclear ballistic missile, the RS-26, tested at both medium and long ranges. While discussed in the Jan. 30 New York Times article, it has not been addressed in any Obama noncompliance reports, which should address all possible violations or circumventions of arms control agreements.

Was failure to address INF Treaty issues based on sources and methods concerns? The administration and its defenders may so argue but such assertions would not be credible. First, the U.S. has the right under the treaty to collect information using NTM. Second, the Russian press has been reporting on the R-500 tests since 2007. While no administration would reach a finding of treaty violation based only on press reports, where such reports are consistent with classified data they offer unclassified information that could be used. Finally, the July 2014 report provides absolutely no data on the cruise missile. If the administration can report a finding in 2014 without providing any such data, it could have done so in 2010, 2011, 2012 or 2013.

Despite Russia's significant INF Treaty violation, the Obama administration has continued to aggressively pursue reductions in American and NATO nuclear forces. Russia knows that its cruise missile violates the INF Treaty and thus also knows that the Obama administration has covered up the violation. Perhaps its friends in Syria and Iran also know it. When the United States draws a line in the sand and tells a country not to cross it — but then does not respond — every other line we have drawn becomes more anemic. Russia has taken full advantage.

Paula A. DeSutter was assistant secretary of State for verification and compliance from 2002-09.

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