WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is weighing a range of aggressive responses to Russia’s alleged violation of a Cold War-era nuclear treaty, including deploying land-based missiles in Europe that could pre-emptively destroy the Russian weapons.
This “counterforce” option is among possibilities the administration is considering as it reviews its entire policy toward Russia in light of Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea and other actions the US deems confrontational in Europe and beyond.
The options go so far as one — it was implied but not stated explicitly — that would improve the ability of US nuclear weapons to destroy military targets on Russian territory.
It all has a certain Cold War ring, even if the White House ultimately decides to continue tolerating Russia’s alleged flight-testing of a ground-launched cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty.
Russia denies violating the treaty and has, in turn, claimed violations by the United States in erecting missile defenses.
It is unclear whether Russia has actually deployed the suspect missile or whether Washington would make any military move if the Russians stopped short of deployment. For now, administration officials say they prefer to continue trying to talk Moscow into treaty compliance.
In public, administration officials have used obscure terms like “counterforce” and “countervailing strike capabilities” to describe two of its military response options, apparently hoping to buy time for diplomacy.
The Pentagon declined to make a senior defense policy official available to discuss the issue. A spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, said, “All the options under consideration are designed to ensure that Russia gains no significant military advantage from their violation.”
At his Senate confirmation hearing in February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted his concern about Russia’s alleged violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty. He said disregard for treaty limitations was a “two-way street” opening the way for the US to respond in kind.
The standoff speaks volumes about the depths to which US-Russia relations have fallen. And that poses problems not only for the Obama administration but also for the NATO alliance, whose members in eastern Europe are especially leery of allowing Russian provocations to go unanswered.
Western leaders are meeting Sunday and Monday for a G-7 summit — from which Russian President Vladimir Putin has been excluded — where Russian aggression will be a key topic. On Friday, Carter plans to meet in Germany with American defense and diplomatic officials to map out a counterstrategy to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and to reassure allies worried about Moscow.
The US and its Western partners have tried to use economic and diplomatic leverage against Putin on a range of conflicts, including Ukraine. But they also recognize that Moscow still plays an important role in international affairs, including the nuclear talks with Iran that are among President Barack Obama’s highest foreign policy priorities.
The administration is considering three options for responding militarily to Russian missile treaty violations: defenses to stop a treaty-violating missile, the “counterforce” option to attack a missile preemptively and the “countervailing strike capabilities” option that implies the potential use of nuclear forces.
One of Carter’s nuclear policy aides, Robert Scher, testified in April that “counterforce” means “we could go about and actually attack that missile where it is in Russia.” Another Pentagon official, Brian McKeon, testified in December that this option involved potential deployment in Europe of ground-launched cruise missiles.
Scher said another option would involve “not simply attacking” the Russian missile but seeing “what things we can hold at risk within Russia itself.” Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said this could mean further improving the ability of US nuclear or conventional forces to destroy Russian military targets in addition to missiles deemed to violate the INF treaty.
Kristensen said the public discussion of these options amounts to “one hell of a gamble” that Putin will back down on INF.
The Obama administration has been relatively gentle in poking Moscow publicly on the INF issue. The State Department’s top arms control official, Rose Gottemoeller, has called the alleged Russian violations a “very grave concern.” In December she argued against declaring the treaty dead, saying America’s allies also are opposed to that approach.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.