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 American and NATO concern. In this regard, the Obama administration, while prepared to call out bad Russian behavior, and after years of delay, finally agreeing to support nuclear weapons and delivery systems modernization, has yet to take a firm stand against Moscow’s threatening language and behavior. No doubt it has seen the wisdom of avoiding to draw any more “red lines” like those in Syria that Russia might cross even more easily than has Bashar Assad. Yet at the same time, its silence in the face of a clearly more aggressive Russian political exploitation of its strategic and tactical nuclear prowess serves only to encourage Moscow to push even further against the bounds of NATO’s resolve.
The passive, head-in-the-sand attitude that has characterized so much of the administration’s foreign policy simply cannot be applied to Russo-American nuclear relations. Just as it pushed hard to negotiate New Start and then obtain Senate ratification, the administration should undertake a major effort to respond to Moscow’s nuclear diplomacy. Such an effort should be multipronged. The administration should forge ahead with modernizing both its tactical and strategic weapons and launch systems, and, in particular, fully fund and proceed apace with the Navy’s successor to the Trident submarine and the Air Force’s successor to the B-2 bomber. Moreover, the Pentagon should at least study options for dealing with possible Russian tactical nuclear strikes.
At the same time, Washington should open a new dialogue with Moscow, perhaps building on the modest agreement that the two countries recently reached regarding deconfliction over Syrian airspace. Such a new dialogue would not be another “reset,” in that it would be accompanied by a clear and credible determination to confront Moscow with a new more capable deterrent and with plans to use it, if necessary. Nevertheless, such a dialogue could help cool the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries and exploit the common ground that they share across an array of issues. These issues include fear of the Islamic State and radical Islam, the need for stability in the Middle East and the maintenance of the all-too-fragile nuclear non-proliferation regime. Most importantly, a dialogue should focus and underscore the recognition that both countries still share, that it remains in their common interest to ensue that what once was called “the delicate balance of terror” remains as stable as it has ever been.
• Dov S. Zakheim was undersecretary of defense in the first George W. Bush administration and is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.