The Russian government told the United States more than eight years ago that it wanted to abandon the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a Senate hearing last week.
"The Russian defense minister as early as 2007 approached me about doing away with the INF Treaty," Gates said in Senate Armed Services Committee testimony Wednesday.
Gates said he was told by the Russian defense minister that the irony of the INF Freaty is that "the United States and Russia are the only countries that cannot have intermediate range missiles."
The Russian minister told Gates that if Moscow abandoned the treaty it would not point its new medium-range missiles west, but would "put them in the south and in the east, meaning Iran and China," he stated.
"I wasn’t sure I believed that at the time," Gates said. "So they’ve been interested in getting out of this treaty for several years, and, just as we unilaterally walked away from the ABM Treaty early in the second Bush administration, it would not surprise me in the least to see Russia walk away from the INF Treaty, and have the opportunity to deploy more of these missiles."
Gates’ knowledge of the Russian desire to jettison one of the most significant Cold War nuclear missile treaties was kept quiet at the time and first disclosed in his 2014 book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
Critics have said if Russian opposition to the INF Treaty since 2007 had been known in December 2010 Senate, the New START arms treaty with Russia might have been voted down by the Senate. New START is considered a centerpiece of President Obama’s foreign policy.
The State Department formally declared Russia to be in violation of the INF Treaty last year for developing and testing a ground-launched cruise missile banned by the accord. The treaty called for elimination of all U.S. and then-Soviet missiles missiles with ranges of between 300 and 3,400 miles.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported last month that Russia flight tested the illegal INF cruise missile, identified by defense officials as the SSC-X-8, on Sept. 2. The missile did not fly beyond the 300-mile range covered by the INF Treaty ban during the test, and intelligence analysts assessed described the missile as flown in a "nuclear profile," or as a nuclear-capable delivery system.
Moscow so far has refused to return to compliance with the treaty, and the Obama administration has delayed responding to the treaty breach despite pressure from Republicans in Congress who want the United States to answer what they regard as a militarily significant arms violation.
Gates made the comments under questioning from Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) in recounting a meeting in February 2007 with Sergei Ivanov, then Russia’s minister of defense, at a NATO meeting in Seville, Spain.
Gates told Ivanov that the United States would not support Moscow’s plan to jettison one of the Cold War’s most significant arms reduction accords, according to the former defense secretary’s memoir.
Under the INF agreement, the United States dismantled its arsenal of nuclear ground-launched cruise missiles, as well as its Pershing I and Pershing II missiles. Moscow took offline its SS-4, SS-5, SS-12, SS-20, SS-23, and SSC-X-4 ballistic and cruise missiles.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, has called on the administration to take steps to respond to the Russian treaty violation.
Rogers said last month that it is "time for the White House to get out of the way of the [Defense Department] so that it can field military responses to this treaty violation."
"We must make sure the Russian Federation cannot obtain a military advantage from this or any of its other arms control violations," he said.
In February, prior to assuming office as secretary of defense, Ash Carter told the committee that the United States is prepared to abandon the treaty unless Russian returns to compliance.
Carter said the United States has to "remind Russia that this was a two-way street, that we signed a treaty that says you’re not going to do this, and we’re not going to do it either."
"And if you don’t want to have that treaty, why then you’re absolved from your restrictions under that treaty, while we are too," Carter said.
Carter told the committee that U.S. options for responding to the treaty breach include "active defenses to counter intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, counterforce capabilities to prevent intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile attacks, and countervailing strike capabilities to enhance U.S. or allied forces."
Russian opposition to the INF Treaty and its illegal development and test of a cruise missile banned by the pact was kept secret by both the Bush and Obama administrations.
No mention was made of the Russian opposition to the INF Treaty during Senate debate on another strategic arms treaty, the New START accord that was approved during a lame duck session of the Senate in December 2010.
The latest State Department figures made public earlier this month revealed that Russia has added strategic warheads to its arsenal and is now more than 100 warheads above New START levels.
Disclosure of the Russian plans to pull out of the INF Treaty likely would have influenced the votes of Republican senators who agreed to approve New START in exchange for a promise from President Obama to invest $50 billion in modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Cotton asked Gates whether the United States should now consider the Russian offer to abrogate the INF Treaty, and whether in response to the treaty violation the United States should develop new nuclear warheads to counter the Russian buildup.
"Well, theoretically, my answer would be yes," Gates said.
"But I would tell you, practically speaking, I spent virtually the entire four and a half years that I was secretary of defense trying to get first, the executive branch, and then the Congress, to figure out a way to modernize the nuclear weapons we already have. That effort was a signal failure."
Gates said a priority in developing nuclear arms should be to modernize the current arsenal to make them safer and more reliable instead of building new weapons.