Thanks to years of one-sided nuclear treaties with Russia that have led to our unilateral disarmament, the Russians are rapidly outmaneuvering us in nuclear offensive and defensive capabilities. And no, they are not accruing these weapons just for Crimea or even Poland. They have greater ambitions. Thankfully there are signs that Trump plans to change this asymmetrical strategy.
Far from exhibiting a weak posture towards Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump’s decision over the weekend to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and blatantly call out Putin for cheating demonstrates that he recognizes the growing menace from Russia on the issues that actually matter. After years of administrations from both parties calling out Russia for violating the INF but then doing nothing, Trump has decided to take action. He announced on Saturday that the U.S. will withdraw from the INF. “We’re the ones that have stayed in the agreement and we’ve honored the agreement. But Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement. We’re gonna pull out,” said Trump as he flew out to rally for Republican Senator Dean Heller in Nevada.
Under the INF, the two countries may not possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or possess or produce launchers of such missiles. The Obama administration warned for years that Russia was violating the treaty, and last year, it was confirmed that Russia deployed new ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile systems with nuclear capabilities aimed at Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, America has always dutifully complied, even as Russia is developing super-weapons and state-of-the-art launchers. In the early ’90s, we destroyed 2,700 of our ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. This is the exact type of one-sided deal that Trump has promised to tear up. In an interview with Conservative Review, Mark Schneider, a nuclear weapons expert with extensive government experience negotiating nuclear treaties, said this is exactly what President Reagan would do when faced with such evidence:
I am very pleased with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty in response to very serious Russian violations. Indeed, it is exactly what President Reagan would have done, indeed, actually did do in 1986 in response to multiple Soviet violations of the SALT I and II agreements. Russian INF Treaty violations are actually much more serious than the ones that President Reagan responded to in 1986. In addition to the INF Treaty violations determined by the Obama administration and reaffirmed by the Trump administration, there are a number of other Russian INF Treaty violations involving ground-launched cruise missiles of INF Treaty prohibited range being reported in the Russian media, including the state media. There is no credible case to continue the more than four years of non-response to very serious Russian INF Treaty violations. As President Reagan stated in 1982, arms control without compliance is an exercise in building “a paper castle that will be blown away by the winds of war.”
According to the latest Department of Defense Nuclear Posture Review, Russia has maintained and developed new tactical nuclear weapons that “include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines, a nuclear ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 INF Treaty, and Moscow’s antiballistic missile system.”
The violations run deep and have been reported extensively in Russian media and bragged about by Putin during his annual state of the union address before the Duma. These violations are part of a steadfast doctrine of Putin and his top generals to produce enough tactical nukes with capabilities to win a “first use of nuclear weapons” contest in a way that will not necessarily trigger mutually assured destruction and place the U.S. in a tough tactical and political position.
The violations were so flagrant that even the NATO bureaucrats placed the blame for the collapse of the treaty solely on Russia. NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu said on Sunday that “Allies stressed that the United States is in compliance with its obligations under the INF Treaty, while a pattern of behavior over many years has led to widespread doubts about Russian compliance.”
This statement demonstrates both the fruitful posture of Trump towards NATO in getting them to grow a spine as well as the degree to which the NATO countries fear the growing trend of Russia’s asymmetrical nuclear offensive advantage over America’s nuclear umbrella.
Trump would be wise to follow up on this decision by agreeing to terminate the New START Treaty, which is slated to expire on February 5, 2021. Not surprisingly, Putin asked for a five-year extension at the Helsinki summit because he has been cheating his way through it. “New START is close to useless and in many respects negative with regard to constraining Russian nuclear capabilities,” warned Schneider. “I believe we have to take a look at all the reported issues relating to the INF and New START Treaties outside of the legacy Obama bureaucracy.”
Schneider is referring to the many reports from Russian media of Putin not only developing new nuclear super-weapons outside of the treaty’s parameters, but downright violating the provisions of the treaty by arming his strategic nuclear bombers with a long range of 1,000 kms, a prohibited range under the treaty for non-heavy bombers. More fundamentally, it’s hard to believe Russia is in compliance with the 1,550 km cap on nuclear warheads, given that less than a year before the compliance deadline it was still increasing its stockpile. And as Schneider has warned, New START has the weakest verification regime, with no clear rules that allow us to fairly account for Russia’s warheads. Thus, thanks to Obama, they have spent the past six years modernizing their arsenal while the U.S. proceeded to destroy hundreds of warheads and delivery systems.
Trump’s next step should be demanding that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., bring a resolution to the Senate floor vitiating New START. What will Democrats do? Accuse him of colluding with Putin? Who’s pro-Russia now? As Schneider put it, it’s hard to take anyone seriously about their concerns over Russia when “Vladimir Putin, a man who makes nuclear threats and has just said that Russians ‘will go to heaven’ in a nuclear war, [has] a monopoly on ground-launched nuclear capable cruise missiles.”
Indeed, the prospect of Russia dominating the U.S. militarily with its nuclear capabilities is much more serious than any Facebook ads or Twitter-bots posting corny information on our elections.
I’ll be the first to say I was disappointed by Trump’s performance at the summit with Putin in Helsinki in July, but if you look at the actual policy outcomes, such as the Iran deal, the alliance with Poland, and the energy export policy, Trump clearly sees where Putin is and is not a threat to our interests. And based on his reaction to the INF violations, he clearly understands that the nuclear threat is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. If Trump doubles down and pulls out of New START, he will go a long way in finally ending the collusion with the Russians to decimate our nuclear capabilities while they advance theirs to new levels.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.