Ronald Reagan Presidential Library
Nearly 300 civilians lost their lives when, on July 17, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. This tragedy underscores that Russia’s support of Ukrainian rebels is not just an Eastern Europe problem and, more broadly, that Russian aggression cannot continue to be ignored.
Unfortunately, ignoring Russia’s in-your-face actions has become all too common a response by the current administration. One dangerous example is Russia’s flaunting of the treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF), which ended the last battle of the Cold War. The 1987 treaty required the elimination of U.S. and Russian ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers—precisely those then targeted at each other in Europe.
For over twenty five years, the INF treaty has undergirded European security and symbolized the end of Cold War nuclear tension. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the treaty represents a grossly unfair security arrangement imposed by a hegemonic West on a hobbled Soviet Union, whose dissolution he termed the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.”
So Putin has found a simple way to deal with the pesky pact that has kept medium range nuclear missiles out of Europe. He ignores it. The specifics of Russia’s actions are still classified and, of course, Russia denies its violation. However, a bipartisan group of congressmen and senators with access to the classified information concluded that Russia’s illegal action is a “material breach” of the INF treaty, calling into question its continuing legal effect.
The cheating on the INF treaty is part of a Russian pattern of signing, and then breaking, treaties. It is well documented in the classified versions of the annual State Department report, required by Congress,. Unfortunately, it is not detailed in the rosy version that State publishes for the public.
Recently, the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe warned that: “[a] weapon capability that violates the INF that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with…It can’t go unanswered.”
But it has gone unanswered by the administration. We understand that neither President Obama, nor his secretaries of State or Defense have said one word about the INF violation to their counterparts. In the absence of the administration’s leadership, Congress has acted. House language in the annual defense authorization bill condemns Russia’s actions as a “material breach” of the INF treaty and requires the Pentagon to prepare options to respond to the INF violation. The Senate should follow suit.
While Congressional action is a step in the right direction, it is far from being sufficient – the administration must too show Russian aggression will not continue to go unanswered.
Contrast this with President Reagan when faced with a major Soviet violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Reagan confronted Russian President Gorbachev early and often, demanding that the huge, illegal anti-missile radar in Siberia be dismantled. He secured the support of Congress and dispatched his Secretary of State to demarche this violation with his counterpart at each meeting.
Reagan’s persistence and strength succeeded. Gorbachev conceded and dismantled the radar piece-by-piece, paving the way for future treaties. By comparison, the Obama White House’s non -response to this violation has contributed to Putin’s perception of U.S. indecision and weakness.
The Reagan approach forced the Soviets to the negotiating table and saw the first ever elimination of an entire class of nuclear weapons. The Obama approach saw Russian paratroopers in Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea and now likely Russian weapons support that led to the loss of some 300 innocent lives.
It is time for Obama, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his pledge to pursue a world without nuclear weapons, to show the world that he, and the United States, will no longer ignore Russian aggression and the violation of this critical weapons treaty is the place to start.
On the other hand, failure to confront this violation poses a threat to the very idea of arms control. After all, if the enforcement of nuclear weapons arms control obligations is not worth the attention of the President of the United States, what is the point of the obligations?
Kyl served in the Senate from 1995 to 2013. He currently works in the Washington office of the international law firm of Covington & Burling LLP and is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Bond served in the Senate from 1987 to 2011. He is currently a partner at the law firm of Thjomson Coburn LLP.