Tensions Rise as US Threatens to 'Take Out' Russian Missiles
October 8, 2018
Jonathan Marcus / BBC & BBC News
The threat from a senior US diplomat to "take out" Russian missiles that Washington believes are in breach of an important Cold War arms control treaty looks set to cause additional tensions with Moscow, just ahead of a meeting of NATO defence ministers that opens in Brussels. The threat came from Trump's NATO ambassador, Kay Bailey Hutchison, who added the warning that "They are on notice." It is not exactly clear what she is saying. Is she threatening a pre-emptive strike out of the blue? Surely not.
Tensions Rise as US Threatens to
'Take Out' Russian Missiles
Jonathan Marcus, Defence and Diplomatic Correspondent / BBC
(October 2, 2018) -- The threat from a senior US diplomat to "take out" Russian missiles that Washington believes are in breach of an important Cold War arms control treaty looks set to cause additional tensions with Moscow, just ahead of a meeting of NATO defence ministers that opens in Brussels on Wednesday.
The US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was speaking ahead of that meeting and brought up once again Washington's contention that Russia is in breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement of 1987.
This treaty banned a whole category of weapons: ground-launched medium-range missiles, capable of striking targets at distances between 500 and 5,500km (310-3,100 miles).
Now, the Americans insist, despite Russian denials, that Moscow has a new medium-range missile in its inventory -- the Novator 9M729 -- known to NATO as the SSC-8. This would enable Russia to launch a nuclear strike at NATO countries at very short notice.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan signed the INF treaty in 1987.
Ambassador Hutchison said the US wants to find a diplomatic solution to this problem. But she appeared to indicate that the US might consider military action if Russia's development of the system continued.
"At that point we would be looking at the capability to take out a (Russian) missile that could hit any of our countries," she said, adding counter-measures (by the US) would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty.
"They are on notice."
At first sight, this seems to be a fairly blunt warning from President Donald Trump's NATO ambassador. But it is not exactly clear what she is saying. Is she threatening a pre-emptive strike out of the blue? Surely not.
Is she warning that if the Russian development of these weapons goes ahead then the US will find systems to target them in the event of a crisis?
Indeed, other US experts have sometimes suggested that a more likely US response might be to throw over the INF treaty itself and deploy a similar category of weapon.
That would be very bad news for arms control.
Back in the Cold War, the US was alarmed at the then Soviet Union's deployment of the SS-20 system. Some of Washington's allies agreed to receive US Pershing and Cruise missiles in response. The move prompted widespread protests and huge political tensions.
The resulting INF treaty swept this whole category of weapon away and significantly reduced tensions. Mr. Putin and ex-President Barack Obama had diplomatic run-ins over the INF Treaty.
But now, once again, the INF Treaty is back in the news. Russia has said little about its new missile other than to deny that it is in breach of the agreement. It has not answered any of the NATO countries' concerns.
Indeed, in his pre-ministerial press conference, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that "the most plausible assessment would be that Russia is in violation of the treaty".
"It is therefore urgent," he went on, "that Russia addresses these concerns in a substantial and transparent manner." He also added that, according to US intelligence, Russia had started to deploy the new missile.
Russia launched missiles from the Caspian Sea on targets in Syria in 2015. Exactly what the Americans know is still not clear.
For a long time experts were not even certain which specific missile was being talked about. Is this just an extended range version of the Iskander-M -- an existing Russian weapon?
Or could it be a new variant of the sea-launched Kalibr land attack missile that has been used by the Russian navy against targets in Syria?
Whatever the details, the US insists the Russians are in breach of the INF agreement. That matters.
Ambassador Hutchison may have spoken a little loosely. Russia's foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said: "It seems that people who make such statements do not realise the level of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric."
But if the deployment of the weapon continues, then the US could well make some equivalent move in response.
The issue is bound to be high on the agenda when NATO defence ministers meet in Brussels.
Russia Denies Breaking Treaty
After Alleged Missile Deployment
Russia has denied violating a Cold War-era
missiles treaty, following accusations by officials
in Donald Trump's administration
(February 15, 2017) -- The unnamed US officials said that Russia had deployed a banned cruise missile. A Kremlin spokesperson said on Wednesday that Russia continued to uphold its international commitments. The US state department has made no official comment.
The alleged deployment is expected to be discussed during Wednesday's NATO meeting in Brussels, the first since President Trump took office.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he would not comment on intelligence reports but added that any non-compliance from Russia on the arms control treaty would be a "serious concern for the alliance".
The Brussels meeting will be attended by US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
"Nobody has formally accused Russia of violating the treaty," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a press briefing. "Russia has been and remains committed to its international commitments, including to the treaty in question," he said.
Mr. Putin and ex-President Barack Obama had diplomatic run-ins over the missiles treaty. A New York Times report, citing administration officials, said that the Russians now have two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile.
Republican Senator John McCain responded to the missile allegation with a statement calling on the Trump administration to enhance US nuclear deterrents in Europe. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin was "testing" Mr. Trump.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) was first signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1987. It bans the use of ground-based, intermediate-range or short-range missiles by Russia or the US.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President Ronald Reagan signing the INF treaty in 1987. Russia has been accused of violating the treaty before, including under the Obama administration. In 2014, the US accused the Russians of developing and testing cruise missiles.
Mr. Putin has also previously said that the treaty no longer serves Russia's interests, and it is unfair as it does not apply to other countries that have since developed missiles within the same range.
The US relationship with Russia remains under intense scrutiny, after General Michael Flynn resigned as the president's national security adviser on Tuesday.
Mr. Flynn quit on Monday over claims he discussed US sanctions with Russia before Donald Trump took office. Private citizens are not allowed to conduct US diplomacy.
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