Rather than deter Russia, Obama administration gives it cover

Rebeccah Heinrichs Foreign Policy Analyst
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It’s really no wonder Russia continues to flout U.S. demands to deescalate the situation in Ukraine. The fecklessness of Washington’s response to Moscow’s behavior is deeper and much worse than the infamous and embarrassingly weak sanctions against a handful of Russian politicians. Since President Obama entered office, his administration has downplayed, and in some severe cases, even tried to conceal Russian violations and dangerous behavior. One might even describe the Obama administration as the Russian government’s best cover.

For instance, just before Moscow invaded Ukraine, the New York Times revealed the U.S. had just shared the news with NATO allies about Russia’s likely violations of the 1987 INF Treaty. Media reports indicate the administration knew about the violations during negotiations of the New START treaty with Moscow. The yearly report to Congress that lays out treaty compliance matters is predictably late, and in the past several years, Russia’s INF violations have been suspiciously absent.

Another example is the Open Skies Treaty, which allows Russia and the U.S. to fly over each other’s country to ensure treaty compliance and to keep track of military preparations. The kind of equipment and sensor capabilities on board the aircraft has been agreed to by all parties to the treaty. Press reports reveal Russia is seeking approval from the U.S. to significantly upgrade its sensors in order to, presumably, help it spy on the U.S. a little better. Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon has found the request in and of itself audacious and is opposed to entertaining the idea, while the administration is inclined to accommodate Moscow.

The Obama administration has also sought to unilaterally limit U.S. offensive and defensive capabilities in the hope that Russia and others will follow suit. Instead, Russia moves forward, refusing to concede its most potent military capabilities, all awhile accusing the U.S. of destabilizing behavior. Specifically, the U.S. has tried to persuade Russia to slow down its aggressive nuclear program, in part, by limiting Washington’s. Indeed, the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stated the U.S. would not develop new nuclear warheads, nor would it support new military capabilities. At the same time, Moscow is in the midst of an ambitious nuclear modernization program, and is relying more heavily on its nuclear weapons in its military doctrine.

For example, President Obama has continued the U.S. policy of not developing “heavy” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). These are missiles with multiple reentry vehicles, and give an aggressor a distinct advantage in a nuclear confrontation. Unsurprisingly, Russia has no qualms about building these and is reportedly building three. Why should the U.S. choose not to develop a military capability in the name of “maintaining the strategic balance” when Russia does not recognize the same strategic balance and does the very thing the U.S. finds so destabilizing? One would hope that Russia’s ongoing belligerence and flouting of international calls to deescalate would cause the Obama administration to pause implementation of the New START Treaty until things calm down and Russia is found in compliance with its treaty obligations. But on April 8, 2014, in the middle of the unfolding of the crisis in Ukraine, the administration revealed its new plan for the U.S. strategic force structure, which is markedly smaller.

Contrast this with April testimony from General Charles Jacoby, the head of Northern Command, who said Russia’s sophisticated nuclear and conventional cruise missile force poses a great threat to North America. Then, stunningly, he added, “And so, we have been directed by the Secretary to ensure that we are looking at how to provide effective defense against cruise missiles in a way that outpaces any threats, to include the Russians.”

Of course, this is exactly what the U.S. should be doing. But, no doubt once the politicos in the White House catches wind of the military’s planning in this regard, they will try to walk it back. On the matter of defensive weapons, the Obama administration goes to great lengths to give in to Russian objections. But Russia won’t ever be satisfied with the weakness of U.S. defensive systems. Why would it? Moscow has an extensive missile defense program and Russian media has reported it will outpace U.S. spending on these programs. But the more Moscow complains about U.S. defensive systems, the more the U.S. concedes. It did so in 2009 with the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system planned for Poland, and it did so in 2011 with the cutting edge technology SM-3 Block IIB missiles, also planned for Poland.

Many pundits and experts have called for a “recalibration” of U.S. policy towards Moscow. It will take more than a recalibration. What we need is an overhaul that treats our strategic forces, treaties, and agreements as means to advance U.S. security, not items to bargain away in futile efforts to placate an increasingly dangerous Russia.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a foreign policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense. She is the former manager of the House Congressional Missile Defense Caucus.