White House Accuses Moscow Of Violating Landmark Arms Control Deal

The Obama administration is accusing Russia of testing a banned cruise missile, thus violating a long-standing treaty that helped put an end to the Cold War. To learn more about the situation, Audie Cornish speaks with Steven Pifer, the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

To talk more about the ramifications of a treaty violation we're joined by Steven Pifer. He's director of the arms control and nonproliferation initiative at the Brookings Institution and also a former ambassador to Ukraine. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you for having the.

CORNISH: So as we mentioned, this missile, it came to the U.S. attention in 2011. Talk about why now, why this has come up.

PIFER: Yes. Well, the treaty on Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces signed in 1987 prohibited Washington and Moscow from producing, testing, or deploying ground-launched or ballistic missiles in the range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. And what the administration has said, is it has seen the Russians testing a ground launch cruise missile in that range band. So of course any violation of a treaty is important. Testing may not be as serious as actually deploying the missile but it still is a serious violation.

CORNISH: What do you make of the Russian response? Is this reflective of a kind of greater attitude and posturing from Vladimir Putin?

PIFER: Well, if you look at the Russians over the last couple of months denial has actually been a fairly common part of their diplomatic strategy. Denial with regards to any hand in providing the missile that shot down the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, denial about providing arms to Ukraine. And so my guess is you're going to see the Russians deny on this case. But that has in the past been the way the Russians originally approach these sorts of things. The question is, can you get them to move beyond that? And get them into a constructive way where you might be able to thing them back into full compliance with the treaty? One example in 1983, the Reagan administration discovered the Soviets building a radar - that was a clear violation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The initial Soviet reaction was deny, deny, deny. The Reagan Administration continued to press and 7 years later the Soviets conceded it was a violation and tore the radar down.

CORNISH: So lay out some of the options for the U.S. here for President Obama. What kind of recourse can they take?

PIFER: Well, I think the logical course for the administration at this point is not to withdraw from the treaty but to press the Russians in both diplomatic channels, there's also a channel established by the treaty itself - the Special Verification Commission. Basically to come back into full compliance and remain in full compliance with the treaty and to take steps to demonstrate that they are compliant with the treaty. But a second point would be is - we shouldn't make this just an American-Russian problem. You know, if the Russians are testing or were to even consider moving on to deploy missiles of intermediate range, those missiles can't reach most of the United States. From some locations they might be able to reach part of Alaska. So they're really not a direct threat to America. They're a direct threat to Europe and Asia and so I think the U.S. government should talk to our NATO allies. Talk to the Japan, South Korea, talk to China and get those countries engaged because if the Russians are going down this route it's a direct threat to them more so than it is to the United States.

CORNISH: But is there some concern that Russia would just want to get out of this treaty altogether?

PIFER: That remains to be seen. If you go back to 2007, some Russian officials, fairly senior officials, were suggesting that they were considering withdraw from the treaty. But they backed away from that and my guess is that they backed away from that because they understood that the political fallout of Russia withdrawing from the treaty in terms of damaged relations with Russia's neighbors in both Europe and Asia would be substantial and they did not want to pay that price.

CORNISH: Steven Pifer, he's director of the arms control and non-proliferation initiative at the Brookings Institution. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PIFER: Thank you for having me.

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