Politics Special

Russian test of cruise missile strains arms control accord

Updated: 2014-01-30T05:05:53Z

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

The New York Times

— The United States informed its NATO allies this month that Russia had tested a new ground-launched cruise missile, raising concerns about Moscow’s compliance with a landmark arms control accord.

U.S. officials believe that Russia began conducting flight tests of the missile as early as 2008. Such tests are prohibited by the treaty banning medium-range missiles that was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader at the time, and that has long been viewed as one of the bedrock accords that brought an end to the Cold War.

Beginning in May, Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s senior arms control official, has repeatedly raised the missile tests with Russian officials, who have responded that they investigated the matter and consider the case to be closed. But Obama administration officials are not yet ready to formally declare the tests of the missile, which has not been deployed, to be a violation of the 1987 treaty.

With President Barack Obama pledging to seek deeper cuts in nuclear arms, the State Department has been trying to find a way to resolve the compliance issue, preserve the treaty and keep the door open to future arms control accords.

“The United States never hesitates to raise treaty compliance concerns with Russia, and this issue is no exception,” said Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman. “There’s an ongoing review process, and we wouldn’t want to speculate or prejudge the outcome.”

Other officials, who asked not to be identified because they were discussing internal deliberations, said that there was no question that the missile tests ran counter to the treaty and that the administration had already shown considerable patience with the Russians. And some members of Congress, who have been briefed on the tests on a classified basis for more than a year, have been pressing the White House for a firmer response.

A public dispute over the tests could prove to be a major new irritant in the already difficult relationship between the United States and Russia. In recent months, that relationship has been strained by differences over how to end the fighting in Syria, the temporary asylum granted to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, and, most recently, the turmoil in Ukraine.

The treaty banning the testing, production and development of medium-range missiles has long been regarded as a major step toward curbing the U.S. and Russian arms race.

But after President Vladimir Putin rose to power and the Russian military began to re-evaluate its strategy, the Kremlin developed second thoughts about the agreement. During the administration of George W. Bush, Sergei B. Ivanov, the Russian defense minister, proposed that the two sides drop the treaty.

Although the Cold War was over, he argued that Russia still faced threats from nations on its periphery, including China and potentially Pakistan. But the Bush administration was reluctant to terminate a treaty that NATO nations regarded as a cornerstone of arms control and whose abrogation would have enabled the Russians to increase missile forces directed at the United States’ allies in Asia.

Since Obama has been in office, the Russians have insisted that they want to keep the agreement. But in the view of U.S. analysts, Russia has also mounted a determined effort to build up its nuclear abilities to compensate for the weakness of its conventional, nonnuclear forces.

Administration officials and experts outside government say Congress is highly unlikely to approve an agreement mandating more cuts unless the question of Russian compliance is resolved.

“If the Russian government has made a considered decision to field a prohibited system,” Franklin C. Miller, a former defense official at the White House and the Pentagon, said, “then it is the strongest indication to date that they are not interested in pursuing any arms control, at least through the remainder of President Obama’s term.”

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