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Putin threatens to develop new nuclear weapons if the US does so first

If you were wondering when the new arms race would start, we'd say right about...now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on August 5, 2019. CREDIT: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on August 5, 2019. CREDIT: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday said that his country would start developing new nuclear missiles if the United States began doing the same.

This is essentially what nonproliferation advocates and activists feared after President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) on Friday.

“If Russia obtains reliable information that the United States has finished developing these systems and started to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles,” said Putin in a statement, having called a meeting with his Security Council.

He called on Russia’s intelligence service, as well as foreign and defense ministers to maintain close monitoring of U.S. weapons development.

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Separately, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Monday said that Moscow would take “corresponding steps” to defend itself against missiles the U.S. might station in Asia. Deploying missiles there is an idea favored by new U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

“The universal MK-41 launch system that will appear, it seems, in Japan can also be adapted to be used to launch medium-range cruise missiles … So these new systems when they appear in Japan will without doubt also be taken into account during our corresponding planning,” said Ryabkov.

The 1987 INF treaty required that the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) dispose of nearly 2,700 conventional and nuclear weapons with a range of between 310 and 3,417 miles.

Should the Pentagon get the budget it requested in the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act, the United States would, in fact, be moving forward with developing three new missiles banned under the INF. While the weapons are conventional, not nuclear capable, Russia can dispute the validity of those claims, just as the United States often disputes Moscow’s claims about its missiles.

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The United States and NATO have accused Russia of violating the INF with its development of the 9M729/SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile. Russia insists the range of missile is within the limits of the INF and that it is not nuclear capable. The United States and NATO say the missile’s range violates INF limits and that it has been developed to carry a nuclear warhead.

So far, the Senate has passed its version of the NDAA and is working on the appropriations bill to fund the requests therein.

The House, however, has passed both its version of the NDAA as well as its appropriations bill, denying the $97 million requested to start developing the three new missiles.

The two chambers will have to reconcile their respective appropriations bills, although the White House has hinted that that President Trump is likely to veto an NDAA that doesn’t include a number of his requests, including funding for the new missiles.

In his statement on Monday, Putin also said that the end of the INF “created fundamental risks for everyone,” but realistically, Russia has long chafed against the limits of the INF.

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Calling the INF unfair, Moscow has claimed it limits its ability to compete with weapons developed by other countries — most notably China, which is not a signatory to the INF — and has said it has no interest in entering into a of similar treaty that would curtail the scope of its weapons development.

The United States is hardly slowing its roll — these three new missiles would be on top of the three new nuclear capabilities for which the Trump administration secured funding last year.

And these new conventional and nuclear weapons might just be the tip of the iceberg. Here’s why: As of right now, the New START treaty, negotiated by President Barack Obama, is the only international agreement limiting Russian and American nuclear weapons programs.

And, if the signals given by the administration are any indication, its days are numbered. National security adviser John Bolton has already said that the treaty, which caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads Russia and the United States can have at 1,550, will not be renewed after it expires in 2021.