Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other members of Congress are right to be concerned that Russia may not be complying with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The State Department confirmed in January that Russia may have breached the agreement by testing a new cruise missile, and the administration has formally taken up the issue with Moscow.
But Rubio and his colleagues* go too far with a March 25 resolution that would hold Russia accountable for "being in material breach of its obligations" under the treaty by calling for a halt to U.S. implementation of further strategic nuclear reductions, a move that would likely trigger a similar Russian response. Rubio's resolution is premature at best and, if adopted, would undermine broader U.S. national security interests.
On Friday March 28 the House approved similar language as part of H.R. 4152, the Ukraine Support Act. However, the language in Sec. 302 of the House bill only calls for a report and determination from the administration of whether it believes Russia is in "material breach" of its INF obligations. The Senate adopted a similar version of the Ukraine Support Act by a voice vote, which calls for an annual report from the executive branch on developments in Russia's nuclear program, including the size and state of Russia's stockpile, its nuclear strategy and associated doctrines, its civil and military production capacities, and projections of its future arsenal.
Differences between the two versions of the Ukraine Support Act must be reconciled before it goes to the President for signature.
In contrast to the reporting provisions on Russian nuclear forces in the bills as adopted by the House and the Senate on Friday, the approach offered in Rubio's resolution, S. Con. Res. 34, would be counterproductive.
First, the formula proposed in the Rubio resolution is premature because the United States has not yet concluded that Russia has in fact violated the INF accord. The State Department said Jan. 30 that "there's still an ongoing review, an interagency review, determining if there was a violation."
Second, even if Russia were eventually found to be in violation of the INF treaty, Rubio's approach, if adopted, would be punitive and unhelpful. The resolution says the United States should not "engage in further reductions" of its nuclear forces "generally" or engage in arms reduction negotiations with Russia "specifically" until any weapons causing the INF violation are eliminated.
If the United States were to stop reducing its nuclear forces under the 2010 New START treaty, Russia would likely do the same, and could even build up its forces. Releasing Russia from existing limits on strategic nuclear forces makes no sense, especially at this time of severe tensions between the West and the Kremlin. For now, the United States and Russia are continuing inspections under New START, and they should continue to do so.
It is still in the U.S. national security interest to maintain verifiable limits on Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal and keep open options for further reductions of Russia's oversized nuclear stockpile. Taking actions that would preclude further reductions would only serve to undermine U.S. security.
Finally, the Rubio resolution says the United States should reconsider remaining a party to the INF Treaty if Moscow is still in violation a year from now. The administration would probably consider this option anyway. But rather than talking about pulling out of the treaty now, the United States should use the consultative process built into the agreement to continue to press the Russians to resolve the ongoing concerns and to fully comply with INF, which bans missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
At this time of U.S.-Russian tensions over the Crimean peninsula, we should not be unraveling the global fabric of transparency and stability agreements. We need more predictability in the world, not less.
*Sen. Rubio's non-binding Senate resolution is also sponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), James Risch (R-Idaho), David Vitter (R-La.), John Walsh (D-Mont.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in the Senate, and in the House by Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.), Ted Poe (R-Tex.), and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.).