How congressional Republicans are trying to undermine U.S.-Russia relations

This op-ed originally appeared in The Washington Post.

As U.S.-Russia relations continue to sour, President Trump has taken to Twitter to blame Congress for the continuing deterioration.

Trump’s finger-pointing may not pass the laugh test, but the fact that Congress is not to blame for our troubles with Moscow does not mean that it can’t make matters worse. And when it comes to nuclear weapons, Congress appears determined to do just that.

Republicans have urged the Pentagon to begin developing a new, potentially nuclear missile prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Construction of the missile would be a gift to Putin, increase the risks of destabilizing nuclear competition and further alienate allies in Europe already unsettled by Trump’s wavering commitment to their security.

The INF Treaty, negotiated by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, required the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate and permanently forswear all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 300 to 3,500 miles. The treaty is a cornerstone of the U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control architecture, having helped to halt and reverse the Cold War-era nuclear arms race.

Unfortunately, the accord is under tremendous strain. The United States has accusedRussia of testing and deploying cruise missiles in violation of the treaty (which Russia denies).

In an effort to up the pressure on Russia over its violation, both the House and Senateversions of this year’s defense authorization bills would establish research and development programs on a new road-mobile ground-launched cruise missile with a range prohibited by the treaty. The House bill requires development of a conventional missile, whereas the Senate bill would authorize a nuclear-capable missile. The House approved its version of the legislation last month, and the Senate is to debate its measure next month.

Although proponents argue that the INF Treaty does not prohibit research or development, going down this road sets the stage for Washington to violate the agreement and would take the focus off Russia’s violation. Russia could respond by publicly repudiating the treaty and deploying large numbers of noncompliant missiles without any constraints.

A new missile is also militarily unnecessary. The Pentagon, which is conducting a review of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, has not asked for one. The United States can legally deploy air- and sea-launched systems that can threaten the same Russian targets. There is no reason to believe that a new missile, which would take years to develop and drain funding from other military programs, would persuade Russia to return to compliance.

Most importantly, NATO does not support a new missile, and no country has offered to host it. Attempting to force the alliance to accept a new, potentially nuclear missile would be incredibly divisive and no doubt prompt much high-fiving in Moscow.

As it seeks to respond Russia’s breach of the treaty, the Trump administration and Congress should keep three guiding principles in mind.

First, we should seek to preserve and strengthen the existing bilateral arms control architecture, including the INF Treaty and the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These agreements constrain Russia’s nuclear forces and provide stability, predictability and transparency. They have only increased in value as the U.S.-Russia relationship has deteriorated.

Second, if the INF Treaty does collapse, we must ensure that Russia shoulders the blame. This means avoiding steps—such as building a noncompliant missile—that would allow Russia to claim that the United States is increasing nuclear instability in Europe.

Third, our approach must have support from European allies, who are most directly threatened by Russia’s illegal missiles. Response options that divide our allies would signal Russia that it could continue to violate the treaty without facing a unified response by NATO.

In keeping with these principles, Congress should encourage the Trump administration to confront Russia in direct talks focused on securing the removal of its noncompliant INF missile systems. Congress should also urge the Trump administration, in consultation with our allies, to pursue firm but measured steps to ensure that Russia does not gain a military advantage by violating the treaty. This could require further augmenting U.S. conventional offensive and defensive capabilities in Europe if Russia’s noncompliance persists and becomes a military threat.

Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty is a serious matter. But a tit-for-tat response—developing our own new nuclear missile—won’t make us safer and will only make the problem worse.

Kingston Reif is director of disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association. Tom Countryman is a former acting undersecretary for arms control and international security with the State Department and former assistant secretary for international security and nonproliferation.