WASHINGTON -- The commander of U.S. nuclear forces says that Russia has increased its deployment of cruise missiles that Washington asserts are in violation of a key Cold War arms-control treaty, a signal that Moscow continues to be undeterred by U.S. warnings.
The comments on March 20 by General John Hyten come with U.S. officials moving more aggressively to confront Moscow and the suspect ground-launched cruise missile, which Washington first publicly identified four years ago as being in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Since being accused in 2014 of developing the missile, Russia has repeatedly denied the U.S. assertions and claimed that Washington had essentially quit the Soviet-era arms-control pact already. Last year, a top U.S. military official said Moscow had begun deploying the missile.
U.S. officials say that in recent months, however, Moscow has begun quietly shifting its approach away from abject denials of the U.S. accusations to more of a dialogue with U.S. negotiators.
During a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Deb Fischer asked if Russia was increasing its production and deployment of the cruise-missile system. Hyten, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, responded, “Yes.”
Known as the INF, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty essentially banned all ground-launched, medium-range cruise and ballistic missiles from Europe. It’s long been considered a keystone arms control agreement between Moscow and Washington that lifted a destabilizing threat from the continent.
U.S. intelligence first detected that Russia was testing a new missile system in the late 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2014 when the administration of then-President Barack Obama formally leveled its accusation.
U.S. officials sought to persuade Russia to come clean about its efforts and eventually pushed for a meeting of the Special Verification Commission, a group of technical experts from both sides.
But there was little progress in resolving the dispute, and Republicans in Congress called for a stronger response. The latest legislation funding U.S. military programs calls for spending up $60 million to develop a new ground-launched cruise missile to counter the Russian effort.
In November, Christopher Ford, a top National Security Council official who was tapped to lead the State Department’s nonproliferation division, strongly criticized the earlier approach to the problem and signaled a more aggressive policy. He also publicly identified the missile in question.
"The Russians now need to choose whether they share our steadfast desire to preserve the treaty or whether they will continue on their current path, which leads to the treaty’s collapse. They no longer have the option of having their cake and eating it, too," Ford said.
Adding further to the mistrust is the U.S. conclusion that the Russian engineers deliberately designed the new missile system to blend in with other permitted missile systems, such as the Iskander. According to a U.S. State Department official with knowledge of the systems, that has made it exceedingly difficult for U.S. intelligence to distinguish missiles from one another.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration released its first Nuclear Posture Review, a policy document laying out the circumstances under which the United States will use its nuclear arsenal. The review included the possibility of low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, as well as new submarine-launched missiles.
Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin trumpeted a series of new weapons under development and specifically cited the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review as the reason for building the new systems.