Two leading Republican lawmakers say that Russian violations of a key nuclear treaty have worsened, causing them to worry about risks to U.S. forces and allies from intermediate-range cruise missiles.
Reps. Mac Thornberry (R., Texas) and Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), who chair the House armed services and intelligence committees, sent a letter to President Obama this week urging the administration to penalize Russia for its violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, commonly known as the INF.
The congressmen disclosed in the letter sent Monday that Moscow’s violations of the INF Treaty have "worsened," though they did not elaborate on the breaches.
"It has become apparent to us that the situation regarding Russia's violation has worsened and Russia is now in material breach of the Treaty," Thornberry and Nunes wrote.
The INF Treaty, signed in December 1987, mandates that the United States and Soviet Union eliminate their stockpiles of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles that can fly between 310 and 3,100 miles, in addition to destroying their associated support structures.
The Obama administration, under pressure from congressional lawmakers, said in July 2014 that Russia was illegally flight-testing intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles, or GLCMs, in violation of the treaty. However, the administration did not penalize Moscow for the violations—inaction criticized by the congressmen on Monday.
The representatives warned that Russia’s "near-decade long pattern" of violations gone unpunished has placed the treaty "on the verge of collapse," putting U.S. forces abroad and allies at risk.
"Despite testimony on at least two occasions by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller that Russia would face economic sanctions for its illegal behavior, no such sanctions have been imposed," they wrote.
"And, despite the testimony of senior Department of Defense leaders that the Pentagon would develop a series of military responses to ensure Russia understood the cost of its illegal activity, and Congress passed and you signed a law to require that such responses be implemented, we understand that your Administration is not permitting the military to pursue the options recommended to you by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey," they wrote.
The letter was sent two days before the New York Times reported that U.S. officials are worried Moscow is producing more missiles than necessary for a flight-test program. This could mean Russia is developing a force for eventual deployment.
The congressmen said that the administration needs to implement economic sanctions on Russia in response to the violations and consider possible military options for deterring Russian aggression. The congressmen worried that, absent a response to Russia’s violations, U.S. forces and allies in East Asia and Europe would be vulnerable to intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles.
They urged Obama to stop initiatives currently under review by the National Security Council, including eliminating a leg of the nuclear triad and abandoning modernization commitments. They also suggested that the administration refrain from extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, in order to use it as a "potential source of leverage with Russia."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Washington Free Beacon reported in June that Russia had eliminated SS-25 mobile missiles in violation of the New START Treaty. Moscow has increased its deployed nuclear warheads over the last six months as the United States has reduced its own.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have run high in recent weeks, as another bungled ceasefire in Syria led to a breakdown of diplomatic talks. The United States has sparred with Russia over its bombing of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime, a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia recently rolled back its cooperation with the United States on nuclear energy by suspending agreements on research and plutonium disposal and terminating a pact on uranium research.
Additionally, the United States this month formally accused Russia of hacking the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations in order to influence the presidential election. The same day, Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, Russia, its small territory bordering Lithuania and Poland, both NATO members.
The White House said that it will develop a "proportional" response to the political hacking.
"This administration is quick to react when the Russians release information relating to the election, but when it comes to violating nuclear treaties, the president only seems willing to drag his feet," Thornberry said. "To be clear, any Russian involvement in our political process is unacceptable. But this administration's failure to confront the Russians for cheating on the INF treaty encourages more Russian misbehavior and leads to a more dangerous world."
Russia has grown increasingly hostile to NATO in response to the alliance's planned buildup in the Baltic States and Poland, which Moscow regards as a threat to its security. NATO has bolstered its posture in Eastern Europe following Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
"A weapon capability that violates the I.N.F., that is introduced into the greater European land mass is absolutely a tool that will have to be dealt with," Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, told the New York Times in 2014, months before the Obama administration formally declared Russia in violation of the INF.
"I would not judge how the alliance will choose to react, but I would say they will have to consider what to do about it," Breedlove said. "It can't go unanswered."