NYTimes – WASHINGTON — Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile that American officials say violates a landmark arms control treaty, posing a major test for President Trump as his administration is facing a crisis over its ties to Moscow.
The new Russian missile deployment also comes as the Trump administration is struggling to fill key policy positions at the State Department and the Pentagon — and to settle on a permanent replacement for Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned late Monday. Mr. Flynn stepped down after it was revealed that he had misled the vice president and other officials over conversations with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.
The ground-launched cruise missile at the center of American concerns is one that the Obama administration said in 2014 had been tested in violation of a 1987 treaty that bans American and Russian intermediate-range missiles based on land.
The Obama administration had sought to persuade the Russians to correct the violation while the missile was still in the test phase. Instead, the Russians have moved ahead with the system, deploying a fully operational unit.
Administration officials said the Russians now have two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile. One is still located at Russia’s missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country, according to a senior official who did not provide further details and requested anonymity to discuss recent intelligence reports about the missile.
American officials had called the cruise missile the SSC-X-8. But the “X” has been removed from intelligence reports, indicating that American intelligence officials consider the missile to be operational and no longer a system in development.
The missile program has been a major concern for the Pentagon, which has developed options for how to respond, including deploying additional missile defenses in Europe or developing air-based or sea-based cruise missiles.
Russia’s actions are politically significant, as well.
It is very unlikely that the Senate, which is already skeptical of Mr. Putin’s intentions, would agree to ratify a new strategic arms control accord unless the alleged violation of the intermediate-range treaty is corrected. Mr. Trump has said the United States should “strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” But at the same time, he has talked of reaching a new arms agreement with Moscow that would reduce arms “very substantially.”
The deployment of the system could also substantially increase the military threat to NATO nations, depending on where the highly mobile system is based and how many more batteries are deployed in the future. Jim Mattis, the United States defense secretary, is scheduled to meet with allied defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.
Before he left his post last year as the NATO commander and retired from the military, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove warned that deployment of the cruise missile would be a militarily significant development that “can’t go unanswered.”
Coming up with an arms control solution would not be easy. Each missile battalion is believed to have four mobile launchers with about half a dozen nuclear-tipped missiles allocated to each of the launchers. The mobile launcher for the cruise missile, however, closely resembles the mobile launcher used for the Iskander, a nuclear-tipped short-range system that is permitted under treaties.
“This will make location and verification really tough,” General Breedlove said in an interview.
While senior Trump administration officials have not said where the new unit is based, there has been speculation in press reports that a missile system with similar characteristics is deployed in central Russia.
American and Russian relations were on a better footing in December 1987 when President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, signed an arms accord, formally known as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and commonly called the I.N.F. treaty.
As a result of the agreement, Russia and the United States destroyed 2,692 missiles. The missiles the Russians destroyed included the SS-20. The Americans destroyed their Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles, which were based in Western Europe.
“We can only hope that this history-making agreement will not be an end in itself but the beginning of a working relationship that will enable us to tackle the other urgent issues before us,” Mr. Reagan said at the time.
But the Russians developed buyer’s remorse. During the George W. Bush administration, Sergei B. Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, suggested that the treaty be dropped because Russia still faced threats from nations on its periphery, including China.
The Bush administration, however, was reluctant to terminate a treaty that NATO nations valued and whose abrogation would have enabled Russia to build up forces that could potentially be directed at the United States’ allies in Asia, as well.
In June 2013, Mr. Putin complained that “nearly all of our neighbors are developing these kinds of weapons systems” and described the Soviet Union’s decision to conclude the I.N.F. treaty as “debatable to say the least.”
Russia began testing the cruise missile as early as 2008. Rose Gottemoeller, who was the State Department’s top arms control official during the Obama administration and is now the deputy secretary general of NATO, first raised the alleged violation with Russian officials in 2013.
After years of frustration, the United States convened a November 2016 meeting in Geneva of a special verification commission established under the treaty to deal with compliance issues. It was the first meeting in 13 years of the commission, whose members include the United States, Russia and three former Soviet republics that are also party to the accord: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
But Russia denied it had breached the treaty and responded with its own allegations of American violations, which the Americans asserted were spurious.
The Obama administration argued that it was in the United States’ interest to preserve the treaty. Having failed to persuade the Russians to fix the alleged violation, some military experts say, the United States needs to ratchet up the pressure by announcing plans to expand missile defenses in Europe and deploy sea-based or air-based nuclear missiles.
“We have strong tools like missile defense and counterstrike, and we should not take any of them off the table,” General Breedlove said.
Franklin C. Miller, a longtime Pentagon official who served on the National Security Council under Mr. Bush, said the Russian military may see the cruise missile as a way to expand its target coverage in Europe and China so it can free its strategic nuclear forces to concentrate on targets in the United States.
“Clearly, the Russian military thinks this system is very important, important enough to break the treaty,” Mr. Miller said.
But he cautioned against responding in kind by seeking to deploy new American intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
“The last thing NATO needs is a bruising debate as we had in the late ’70s and early ’80s about new missile deployments in Europe,” Mr. Miller added. “The United States should build up its missile defense in Europe. But if the United States wants to deploy a military response, it should be sea-based.”
Jon Wolfsthal, who served as a nuclear weapons expert on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the United States, its NATO allies, Japan and South Korea needed to work together to put pressure on Russia to correct the violation. The response, he wrote on Twitter, should be taken by the “alliance as a whole.”
The Trump administration is in the beginning stages of reviewing nuclear policy and has not said how it plans to respond.
“We do not comment on intelligence matters,” Mark Toner, the acting State Department spokesman, said. “We have made very clear our concerns about Russia’s violation, the risks it poses to European and Asian security, and our strong interest in returning Russia to compliance with the treaty.”
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