Russia is continuing to develop a new ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the general in charge of NATO and the U.S. European Command said Friday.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO and Eucom commander, said both the United States and NATO allies are concerned about the new Russian cruise missile that was tested most recently on Sept. 2.
"Sept. 2nd is not the first time that we have seen testing that looks like it violates the INF," Breedlove said during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon. "So, the violation is not new, and yes we are concerned."
Breedlove said the Pentagon has a framework for addressing the treaty breach that was outlined by Defense Secretary Ash Carter earlier this year.
Carter testified that the United States will respond to the INF violation and several options are being reviewed. The options include increasing cruise missile defenses and deploying nuclear-tipped counterforce weapons.
Defense officials have said the State Department and White House have been blocking Pentagon efforts to counter the treaty breach.
The State Department has sought for over a year to coax Moscow into returning to INF treaty compliance but the efforts, through talks with the Russian officials, have been unsuccessful.
Russia has denied violating the treaty and countered U.S. charges by demanding more intelligence about the new cruise missile and by accusing Washington of violating the INF treaty.
The treaty was a centerpiece of Cold War arms control and banned all missiles with ranges of between 300 miles and 3,400 miles.
The recent flight test of what defense officials described as Russia’s new SSC-X-8 ground-launched cruise missile are a further indication of Russian unwillingness to abide by the INF accord.
The White House, according to a senior House Republican on the Armed Services Committee, has been blocking a Joint Staff report assessing the risks to U.S. security posed by the Russian missile violation.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates disclosed to Congress last week that Russia sought to pull out of the INF treaty as early as 2007 over concerns that it needs missiles with INF ranges to deal with threats from China and Iran.
Critics of the Obama administration in Congress have said the INF treaty violation, had it been known by Congress, could have led to blocking ratification of the 2010 New START arms accord. That treaty was approved by the Senate with no discussion of Russia’s plans to violate or withdraw from the INF treaty.
China also has a large force of intermediate-range missiles.
Asked about a recent threat by Moscow to withdraw from the INF treaty if the United States modernizes nuclear bombs stored in Europe, Breedlove dismissed the threat as a propaganda ploy.
"As far as withdrawing from the INF, what we hear are threats that are being made in the face of our upgrade, our life extension program to our tactical nuclear weapons in Europe," Breedlove said.
"We're not bringing new weapons, we are not bringing more weapons," he said. "We're ensuring the safety and the functionality of the weapons that are there. So, I actually believe this is just another way to create dialogue and to try to bring pressure on our alliance."
Breedlove said the upgrade of B-61 aircraft-delivered bombs has been planned for years and "we are continuing with the upgrade of our weapons."
"This is about safety and reliability. These are things that you want to have in nuclear weapons. I'm stymied at the concern," he said.
The NATO commander also disclosed that Moscow conducted saber-rattling military maneuvers, including a staff nuclear exercise after NATO forces conducted a series of military exercises in the Baltic states.
"I think these are clear messages that are sent," Breedlove said.
On Russian military intervention in Syria, Breedlove said he views the airstrikes in support of the Assad regime as aimed at diverting attention from Russian military action against the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
"What I'm concerned about is that folks have taken their eye off of Ukraine a little bit because of what is happening in Syria," he said. "And that is a technique that I think has been employed here a couple of times. Invade Crimea. Take the world's eyes off of Crimea by invading Donbas. Take the world's eyes off of Donbas by getting involved in Syria."
On European security threats, Breedlove identified an unpredictable Russia and a lack of visibility into the intentions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, combined with growing Russian military capabilities near Europe, as the reasons for increases in NATO deterrence efforts.
The alliance is currently holding large military exercises aimed at improving readiness, involving some 36,000 troops from 30 nations.
The command recently completed the deployment of a heavy brigade worth of equipment and weapons to bolster defenses.
Without adding troops, military commanders are positioning arms and equipment that could be used by troops that are rapidly deployed in a crisis or conflict. Strengthened European defenses will be focused on protecting the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.
For naval forces, a fourth Aegis-equipped U.S. warship was recently deployed to Spain and the ships have been conducting freedom of navigation operations in the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to prevent U.S. ships from operating. More naval forces have been requested, the four-star general said.
U.S. intelligence agencies also are increasing efforts to gather intelligence on Russia.
For the Middle East, European command forces are operating out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base in support of air strikes against Islamic State targets.
"Europe isn't what it was 18 months ago, or even six months ago, and new threats and challenges seemingly emerge every day," Breedlove said.
Russian aggression continues to be the most important priority.
"Russia's actions prolong the conditions creating massive scale immigration of refugees that is further worrying our southern allies," he said. "And the eastern allies continue to be concerned about Russian expansion. These concerns, combined with the flow of foreign fighters, are a strategic challenge for all of Europe."
Asked about Monday’s unusual flight of two Russian Tu-142 bombers within a mile of the aircraft carrier USS Reagan near Japan, Breedlove said provocative Russian bomber and aircraft flights near Europe have dropped somewhat from a higher rate of bomber and military air intrusions several months ago.
Breedlove attributed the decline in NATO aerial intercepts of Russian aircraft to Moscow’s military operations in Syria, which are taking up military resources.
"I would opine that in the past few weeks or so, it has been a bit more normal, because we have seen a real focus on Syria," he said of the Russian flights.
"But these actions continue, and they continue all around the periphery of Russia. They are still happening in Europe. And they are still happening in the far east, in Asia."