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Obama's Putin Problem
Russia Flouts Landmark Cold War Treaty

Russia has violated a 1987 treaty explicitly banning the testing of medium-range missiles, according to a U.S. announcement to NATO earlier this month. According to U.S. officials, Russia has been flight-testing a new ground-launched cruise missile since as early as 2008. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is considered a benchmark accord in curbing the Cold War superpowers’ arms race. NATO countries view the treaty as an important safeguard against possible Russian aggression. The NYT reports:

“If the Russian government has made a considered decision to field a prohibited system,” Franklin C. Miller, a former defense official at the White House and the Pentagon, said, “then it is the strongest indication to date that they are not interested in pursuing any arms control, at least through the remainder of President Obama’s term.”

It took years for American intelligence to gather information on Russia’s new missile system, but by the end of 2011, officials say it was clear that there was a compliance concern.

This isn’t just a technical dispute about a missile treaty; it’s a signal of a possible shipwreck for White House foreign policy. Obama’s grand plan has been to approach Russia with open arms and calls for friendship and cooperation, with the assumption that Putin would reciprocate and help his administration arrange workable compromises in Syria and Iran.

But suppose the Russians aren’t interested in helping the United States out of difficult situations, but instead hope to use the friendly entreaties as part of a general strategy of reducing American power and revising the post-Cold War status quo in Eurasia? And suppose they see American flexibility as a sign of fecklessness and weakness rather than as sincere friendship?

The Russians are playing an old game. They’re betting on a weak response from Obama and are hoping to deepen the skepticism among U.S. NATO allies that America can be counted on to tamp down Russian antagonism. The Cold War may be over, but Russia is still deeply committed to containing NATO.

An open violation of the missile treaty would make it much harder for the Obama Administration to stick to the narrative it so desperately wants to be true. It will also likely have an impact in Congress, making it much, much harder for the Administration to keep its domestic critics at bay.

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  • Boritz

    The administration will attempt re-brand their tarnished foreign policy and present the situation in a more positive way. The NYT and WaPo will help by penning articles with titles like “Russian Missile Tests a Win-Win for Obama and the Democrats” and “Racial Undercurrents Unmistakable in Republican Response to White House Foreign Policy”. Various TV talking heads will place the emphasis on how this gives ammunition to the tea party and others who never liked the president anyway. FoxNews will agonize for a few days over whether the story “has legs”. An MSNBC poll will show approval ratings affect by half a percent (within the margin of error). Within a week or two one or more other administration scandals will divert attention away, or a Republican office holder will stick his foot in his mouth or be found in ethics violations or be exposed for abuse of power by himself or those in his charge or be caught in an affair.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “An open violation of the missile treaty would make it much harder for the Obama Administration to stick to the narrative it so desperately wants to be true.”

    Obama is so committed to his vision of the world, that he fails to recognize the reality when it kicks him in head.

  • Andrew Allison

    It’s my understanding that the 1987 treaty applied to intermediate (300-3100 miles) range nuclear missiles. Does the fact that it’s apparently nuclear-capable make it nuclear?
    It will be interesting to see how our European allies react to the news that Russia is flight testing a nuclear capable intermediate-range cruise missiles which, because of the required flight time (they’re probably subsonic, since a supersonic boom would attract attention), represent a greater threat to Europe than the US.

  • qet

    It will be OK. Power and Rice will name them and shame them. Then they’ll be sorry!

  • TalkTalkTalkType

    I think it may be more of a challenge to the EU than the US. Russia/Putin (is there another way to express this singularity?) has two major aims: increasing its influence in the “Near Abroad,” for example Ukraine, and to thwart, inconvenience and defeat US interests, however perceived, for example Syria. Russia/Putin have few worldwide interests, which allows them to apply their power in very strong ways that the US has to calculate carefully when, and if, it responds. The US still has an overwhelming military advantage.

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