Russia's illicit missiles [Editorial]

Despite President Obama's campaign pledge to "push the reset button" on U.S. relations with Russia, America's dealings with its erstwhile Cold War adversary recently have been anything but smooth. Moscow and Washington clashed last year over Russia's offer of temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who leaked thousands of classified documents to the media. Russia has been at best a reluctant partner in U.S. efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria and negotiate a halt to Iran's nuclear program. And tension between the two countries spiked again just last month over the political crisis in Ukraine.

That's why we're troubled by a report last week that Russia has been secretly testing a new intermediate range missile in apparent violation of a 1987 arms control treaty that has long been considered one of the bedrock accords that helped end the Cold War. If true, the uncovering of a banned weapons system is bound to raise questions about whether Russia can be trusted to live up to its commitments in other areas where the U.S. seeks its cooperation, adding yet another element of contentiousness to the relationship.

The New York Times, which broke the story, suggested that American officials were aware of a possible treaty violation as long ago as 2008, when Russia began flight tests of the RS-26 cruise missile. Although a few of the tests were flown at intercontinental ranges, which would technically qualify the weapon as a long-range missile covered under the New Start Treaty negotiated by the Obama administration, most of the launches have been tested at medium ranges, leading analysts to believe the weapon's primary purpose is to replace the intermediate-range missiles that Russia was required to give up under the 1987 treaty. The treaty, which bans the development, testing or deployment of certain classes of weapons, defines medium-range missiles as weapons with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.

The revelations of possible cheating by the Russians come at a particularly delicate moment as President Obama seeks to cement additional arms-control agreements with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would make substantial cuts to the two countries' nuclear arsenals. But with reports that Moscow may have violated the 1987 treaty, U.S.-Russian relations are in danger of slipping back into a deep freeze. Some members of Congress are questioning why the administration hasn't complained more vigorously about Russia's apparent treaty violation. In any case, the imbroglio has already made it much less likely that Washington will be able to conclude another major arms deal while Mr. Obama is in office.

Mr. Obama has made arms reduction and nuclear non-proliferation a central tenet of his foreign policy agenda, and he hoped to leave his efforts in that area as a signal achievement of his presidency. But Mr. Putin seems wholly uninterested in resolving the matter to the satisfaction of U.S. officials. The Times reported that Russia has insisted the matter has been investigated and it now considers the case closed.

Moscow's response has been of a piece with a broader pattern of behavior aimed at frustrating U.S. policies abroad and reasserting Russian influence and power after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Mr. Putin, who presides over what has evolved into a police state cum kleptocracy that brutally represses dissent, seems to take particular delight in offering cooperation to the U.S. when it suits Russia's interests and poking a stick in the American president's eye when it doesn't. No doubt that same attitude will be on display in magnified form when Mr. Putin presides over the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi this month.

Russia's president should realize, however, that his country's violation of a critical arms control agreement could backfire. When pressed, Russian officials reportedly have tried to justify their need for a banned intermediate-range missile to deter threats on their periphery from China and perhaps Pakistan. That's not likely to reassure Russia's European neighbors, which the 1987 treaty was originally designed to protect. They will undoubtedly take steps to protect themselves against a revived threat from Moscow, including strengthening anti-missile radar and rocket defenses that Russia has long opposed.

China can be counted on not to discount the threat posed by the new Russian missile, and it, too, is likely to boost spending on anti-missile defenses while also beefing up its nuclear deterrent. As for Pakistan, it's already embarked on a reckless expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal; it's hard to see how Moscow's targeting of that unstable country will make Russia any safer.

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