U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison held a press conference at the alliance headquarters on Tuesday in which she discussed a number of issues that concern European members.
At one point, questions from reporters began to focus on Russia’s development and deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles, in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union on 8 December 1987. The treaty covers nuclear-tipped missiles with a range of between 500-5,500 km (~310 – 3,417 miles).
While Russia has denied being in violation of the INF Treaty, the U.S. says it has a plethora of evidence to prove otherwise.
When reporters asked what the U.S. and NATO intended to do about the missiles, Hutchison said that initially, a stronger diplomatic effort would be utilized since the U.S. had no immediate plans to violate the treaty:
We have been trying to send a message to Russia for several years that we know they are violating the treaty. We have shown Russia the evidence that we have, that they are violating the treaty. They are building a medium-range ballistic missile in violation of the INF. That is a fact which we have proven.
We have been asked by our allies to consult with them on this issue which we are going to do, which we have done, and we will be even more specific, I believe, in the next two days with the evaluations that are documented that we have uncovered from Russia’s actions on the INF Treaty in violation.
The United States does not want to withdraw from the treaty. We certainly don’t intend to violate the treaty. So we are asking our allies for their suggestions on a way forward that would bring Russia into compliance because that is our goal. Russia in compliance.
But if Russia continues to say they are not violating when the evidence is clear that they are, then diplomacy needs to be strengthened, and we need to look for other ways to bring Russia to the table on this issue. It’s very important.
However, reporters pressed further, asking Hutchison what Washington’s response might be if diplomacy wasn’t successful. She seemed to suggest that the U.S. could, at some point, launch military strikes to take Russia’s missiles out (they are currently deployed on Russian soil, according to U.S. intelligence).
“We ask Russia to come into compliance because America is being very careful to stay in compliance. But there will come a point in the future in which America will determine that it has to move forward with a development phase that is not allowed by the treaty right now. That’s not imminent, but we are laying down the markers so that our allies will help us bring Russia to the table,” she said.
“Ma’am, can you be more specific what kind of new information that you are bringing to the table regarding the breach of the INF Treaty? And more explicitly also, what kind of countermeasures that you are considering,” one reporter asked.
“The countermeasures would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty. So that would be the countermeasure eventually,” she said.
“We are trying not to do anything that would violate the treaty on our side, which allows research, but not going forward into development, and we are carefully keeping the INF Treaty requirements on our side, while Russia is violating.”
Later, on Twitter, Hutchison appeared to temper her remarks somewhat.
“I was not talking about preemptively striking Russia. My point: [Russia] needs to return to INF Treaty compliance or we will need to match its capabilities to protect US & NATO interests. The current situation, with [Russia] in blatant violation, is untenable.”
Russia responded: “It seems that people who make such statements do not understand the degree of their responsibility and the danger of such aggressive rhetoric,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “Who has this lady been authorized by to make such statements?”
Analysis: Without question, Hutchison is not merely suggesting but stating plainly that U.S. policy is that barring Russia voluntarily dismantling its intermediate-range systems will result in a military strike at some point by the U.S. and, we assume, NATO since she’s speaking as a representative of the alliance.
In the aftermath of the interview, there hasn’t been any response from the White House or Pentagon refuting Amb. Hutchison’s statement. That may eventually come, especially if media reports pick up and publicize that portion of the interview. If that happens, it’s possible the White House ‘clarifies’ it in a way to downplay Hutchison’s comments.
If not, then we have to assume what she said is official Trump administration policy — that at some point the threat of Russian intermediate-range nuclear missiles will be deemed to significant to ignore.
But would the U.S. and NATO really launch strikes to destroy Russian state property on Russian soil over a treaty violation?
Remember that Hutchison also hinted that the U.S. might first be open to developing its own intermediate-range systems, in violation of the treaty, though “that’s not imminent.” Developing such a system would not take much time for the U.S., of course, which is good considering that Russia is well ahead of us regarding the development and deployment of these systems.
So, we are left to parse Hutchison’s words. What does “eventually” mean in terms of implementing the “countermeasure?” How is the Trump administration defining that term and, more importantly, what’s the timeline here? Are we talking months? Years? What would constitute an unacceptable threat from intermediate systems, considering Russia has more than enough long-range nuclear weapons to strike anywhere on the planet?
These are important questions because the implications are extreme. Were the U.S. and NATO to actually target Russian state property on Russian soil, there would almost certainly be a military/cyber response from President Putin. He wouldn’t really have much choice; the Russian people would demand it. And where the conflict would escalate from there is hard to guess though it’s not so hard to imagine how terrible it could be in terms of death and destruction.
As for the Russian president, it’s a safe gamble that he’s already been apprised of Hutchison’s comments. We would anticipate that the Russian government, via non-public diplomatic channels, will want some clarification of them. The U.S. would want such clarification if a Russian emissary had said something similar about American or NATO weapon systems.
If, in fact, what Hutchison said is official Trump administration policy, it would represent yet another potential conflict trigger involving two well-armed nuclear adversaries.