Missile Malice
Russians Violate Missile Treaty (Again)

The Russians have secretly deployed a ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in what the New York Times sees as a provocative new test of Trump:

Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile despite complaints from American officials that it violates a landmark arms control treaty that helped seal the end of the Cold War, administration officials say.

The move presents a major challenge for President Trump, who has vowed to improve relations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and to pursue future arms accords.

The new Russian missile deployment also comes as the Trump administration is struggling to fill key policy positions at the State Department and the Pentagon — and to settle on a permanent replacement for Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned late Monday.

The Times is right that the Russians’ latest violation poses a challenge for the Trump administration, which already has its hands full responding to missile tests from Iran and North Korea, and whose every move toward Russia is closely scrutinized. But their framing of the news—as a novel development designed to test the new president—obscures the reality that the deployment has been a long time in the making.

In fact, Moscow has reportedly been testing such missiles since 2008, and the issue gained a public spotlight in early 2014 when the Obama administration called Moscow out for violating the treaty. Here was what our own Adam Garfinkle had to say at the time:

This is a big, big, deal. . . . [T]he INF Treaty of 1987, the only U.S.-Soviet Cold War-era arms control agreement that ever actually eliminated any nuclear weapons—indeed, an entire class of them—was the geopolitical equivalent at the time of the Berlin Airlift. […]

The Russians are doing this [violating], it seems to me, for three interlocking reasons: because they can (since they think, correctly, that the Obama Administration will not do anything about it); because it deepens the wedge separating the United States from the “New Europe” members of NATO, and indeed is aimed at the de facto reversal of the expansion of NATO; and because the substitute missile shield we are building in East/Central Europe would (if we ever really build and deploy it) degrade Russian military capabilities, whereas the original since-abandoned deployment scheme would not have.

In other words, deploying such missiles is a strategic move that has long been planned by the Kremlin as a counterbalance to NATO forces in Europe. The groundwork for these plans was laid long before Trump, and things have progressed this far in part due to the Obama Administration’s fecklessness. Omitting this crucial context makes the news seem more unexpected than it really is.

This is not to downplay the missile deployment; it is a genuinely troubling development that will complicate new efforts at arms control, not to mention Trump’s stated desire for rapprochement with Russia. But the news should be taken less as an unprecedented shock than a reminder that the U.S.-Russian relationship will still be plagued by the same headaches and disagreements that have derailed past efforts at a reset. Despite Trump’s affinity for Putin, the Trump administration has lately been sending signals that it will not immediately change U.S. policy toward Russia; the latest news suggests that Moscow, too, has no intention of abandoning its old tricks.

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