THE BLOG
07/30/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Russian Nuclear Violations, What to Do?

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The United States government has determined that Russia is in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) -- an agreement that prohibits both countries from having ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. This violation raises the obvious question of what is to be done or, as the Russian expression goes, Chto Delat. In considering its options, the Obama administration has at least two historical models to follow. The first, as was so eloquently described in this article, is how the Reagan administration handled Soviet Union's violation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The second model is how the George W. Bush administration responded to North Korea's violation of the 1994 deal that froze Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. One model successfully brought a country back into compliance with important arms control agreement while the second deal was abandoned, leading to an increased threat to American allies.

The 1972 ABM Treaty between Washington and Moscow limited deployments of missile defenses in both countries. To prevent either side from rapidly building such a system, the agreement also prohibited deploying certain kinds of radars that could be used for battle management of missile defense interceptors. In 1985 -- two years before the INF Treaty was signed -- the Reagan administration determined that the Soviet Union had violated the ABM treaty by building a phased-array radar oriented for battle management at Krasnoyarsk. Instead of withdrawing from the treaty, President Reagan chose to confront Russia and to persist in pushing Russia to come back into compliance with the treaty. He even negotiated new agreements like the INF Treaty with Moscow that could be verified and that benefited American security while doing so. He and his successor George H. W. Bush pursued the Krasnoyarsk issue for seven years until Russia eventually destroyed the offending radar and came back into compliance with the treaty. The result was an additional 15 years of stability between the Soviet Union and later Russia and the United States. This deal held until the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the ABM treaty to pursue national missile defenses, a development that interestingly may have increased the desire of Russia to develop INF prohibited systems. By maintaining the ABM agreement and insisting on Russian actions to return to compliance, Reagan held the moral and security high ground and enhanced American security in the process.

President Reagan was under no illusions that countries can be trusted to uphold their obligations just because they sign a treaty. This is why he famously embraced the trust but verify motto. Arms control agreements serve US interests when countries comply, but even in their non-compliance, treaties can serve as a way to measure behavior, detect early warning of changing security developments, and provide a lever to press for changes in behavior by other states. Just as laws banning murder don't prevent all murders, agreements have value even if they are violated as long as the United States remains vigilant in verification and response as the Administration has done. The fact that the development of these systems has been detected before production and deployment is a testament to this process.

The second example deals with the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea. In 1994, the United States, working with Russia and China, negotiated an agreement that froze North Korea's plutonium production reactor and weapon activities in exchange for economic and development incentives. While no one in the United States took it on faith that North Korea would fully comply, the freeze was verifiable and the US dedicated multiple resources to help detect any effort by Pyongyang to cheat. Eight years later, the United States discovered that Pakistani black marketeers had provided North Korea with centrifuge technology that North Korea a uranium route to the bomb. After an internal debate, State Department officials confronted their North Korean counterparts with their violations of the freeze and demanded a return to compliance. The US then cutoff oil shipments provided for in the agreement, creating a tit for tat that resulted in North Korea restarting and expanding its nuclear program. While North Korea did little at the time to suggest it wanted to come back into compliance, the same was true of the Soviets in 1985. Concerted efforts to return Pyongyang to compliance and reaffirm the nuclear agreement could have worked, had the Bush administration not been committed to a regime change strategy that made engagement with "axis of evil" states untenable. In the end, US steps to kill the Agreed Framework let North Korea off easy, allowing them to pursue its new uranium program, restart its plutonium path, and resume testing of nuclear weapons. The result is an unconstrained nuclear program, and a growing threat to US allies in the region.

In addressing the INF violation, the Obama administration appears committed to the ABM model of working to bring Russia back into compliance. This makes sense because the United States and its allies are safer with an INF than without it, and the violations have yet to change the basic security balance in Europe or elsewhere. Because of its conventional strength, the United States does not need to increase its nuclear capabilities near Russia and has better ways to reassure nervous allies in the face of an aggressive and belligerent Russia.

One of the last things the United States should do is make it easy for Russia to pursue its plans by withdrawing from the INF agreement. By going public after months of efforts to privately engage Russia, the Administration is choosing to follow Reagan's path and start what will likely be a long campaign to force, shame and coerce Russia back into compliance with an agreement that has served American interests. Whether this path, given President Putin's other dangerous behavior, will be successful is impossible to tell but history suggests that killing a treaty, even in the wake of a violation, does not make America more secure. To those who suggest Russia simply cannot be trusted to comply with agreements, it is important to point out that Moscow eventually returned to compliance with the ABM Treaty and even now is complying with the 2010 New START strategic arms reduction treaty -- another arms control agreement the US is monitoring closely.

In the end, Russia has to want to change and comply with its agreements. If it chooses not to, the US will always have the right to take whatever action it must to protect its own security and that of its allies. But for now, Washington and its allies are better off using the INF issue as a way to moderate Russian behavior and judge its future actions. Killing the treaty eliminates a valuable tool, even one that has been violated.