The Trump administration is levying new sanctions on Russia it hopes will force it to comply with a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty it has violated by deploying a banned cruise missile, according to a senior administration official.
The Commerce Department will punish Russian companies that have provided technology to help develop the new weapon, which was outlawed by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the United States and then-Soviet Union in 1987.
The pact banned missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, which when deployed on Europe’s periphery were seen as highly destabilizing because they would provide little advance notice of attack — and could carry a nuclear warhead.
The administration’s decision, outlined to reporters on Friday, was made after a lengthy review undertaken by the National Security Council, the administration official said.
The goal, the official said, is to signal to Russia that the Trump administration will take treaty violations seriously and to “change the economic calculus” of Putin’s government.
The steps are being taken ahead of a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, the implementing body for the treaty, which the U.S. has requested for next week, the official added.
The Russian military was first accused in 2014 by the Obama administration of violating the treaty, which was signed in the twilight years of the Cold War by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Russia was criticized first for developing the so-called Novator 9M729 missile — designated by NATO as the SSC-8. In February of this year the Trump administration reported the new weapon had been deployed.
Russia has denied violating the pact. It has also accused the United States of breaking the accord by deploying anti-missile interceptors, which the United States says do not apply to the INF treaty.
In addition to the new sanctions, the official said the Defense Department will begin research and development on a new nuclear cruise missile — as is also called for in the recently approved defense policy bill.
But the NSC review also determined that it remains in the American interest to comply with the treaty — and the administration official insisted the new research on a U.S. version of the missile would not violate the accord.
The research will include evaluation of design options for a new ground-launched nuclear cruise missile, which is allowed under the INF Treaty, the official said.
The dual responses of sanctions and R&D are a middle ground short of abrogating the treaty, as some defense hawks in Congress have urged.
“We are not to cross any thresholds,” the official said.
Nonetheless, arms control advocates expressed concern about moving ahead with design studies for a new medium-range U.S. missile.
“The INF Treaty does not prohibit research or development, but going down this road sets the stage for Washington to violate the agreement at some point and it takes the focus off of Russia’s INF violation,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement. “Rather than persuading Russia to return to compliance, this action is more likely to give Moscow an excuse to continue on its current course.”
Kimball expressed hope that the proposed meeting next week of the Special Verification Commission, or SVC, will be an opportunity to discuss with the Russians concrete solutions to return to full compliance.
“Both sides must recommit to resolve this issue and use the existing treaty compliance resolution mechanism, the SVC, to evaluate competing technical claims and ultimately to remove from deployment any INF systems in Russia that do not comply with the treaty,” Kimball said.