Meeting Russia’s New Nuclear Challenge

Even as the Obama administration continues to ponder just how it might respond to the turn of events in Syria in light of Russia’s ongoing intervention there, it has studiously avoided addressing a second, far more significant challenge that Russia is posing to the West, that of its nuclear weapons posture. Concurrent with Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Moscow has increased the number of its strategic nuclear exercises, dispatched Bear bombers to test NATO defenses, and expanded its conventional force exercises, which incorporate escalation to the use tactical nuclear weapons. In addition, Russian officials, from President Putin on down, have engaged in overheated nuclear rhetoric, including the assertion by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that Moscow has the right to deploy nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Moscow formally adheres to the 2010 New START treaty, which reduces strategic nuclear launchers by 50 percent, and imposes lower sublimits on launchers, bombers and missiles. Yet the State Department has recently acknowledged that Russia is currently about one hundred warheads above New START levels. Moreover, Russia is modernizing its strategic nuclear forces far more quickly than the United States, whose efforts in this regard will not bear fruit until after the end of the current decade.

More ominous still is Moscow’s increasingly blatant disregard of the 1987 INF (intermediate nuclear forces) Treaty. Last year, and again reportedly last month, Russia tested a ground launched cruise missile in violation of the treaty. Reports also abound that Russia may be moving nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania. It is noteworthy that, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates latterly testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in 2007 Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov approached him about entirely doing away with the treaty. Gates rebuffed the Russian’s request, but Moscow’s recent behavior indicates that it has unilaterally chosen to ignore the treaty.

Moscow’s defenders argue that the threat is overblown; that NATO has been provocative by expanding to include Russia’s immediate neighbors; that it can deploy nuclear weapons to Crimea because it considers the peninsula to be an integral part of its territory. These apologists also contend that Russia’s apparent violations of the INF Treaty are no worse that the deployment and development of long-range drones and missile interceptors that, in its view also constitute treaty violations. Finally, Russia continues to argue that the United States withdraw its anti-ballistic missile capabilities from Europe, even though these have been significantly scaled back from the original Bush administration plan for a “Third Site” in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Moscow’s explanations notwithstanding, its military exercises and deployments, its publicly stated nuclear policies, no doubt buttressed by classified plans, and not least, its rhetoric, should be a major cause of…

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