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Is the U.S. entering a new arms race with Russia?

The U.S. has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, saying Russia was violating the arms control deal that dates back to the Cold War. Now, Russia plans begin to building mid-range nuclear missiles. Nick Schifrin speaks with Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson about whether the U.S. can avoid a new arms race.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Trump administration notified Russia last week that it was withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, intermediate range nuclear forces agreement, or INF. Arms control experts decried the move.

    In a moment, Nick Schifrin talks with the State Department's top arms control official, but, first, Nick has some background.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    We have seen what can be accomplished when we pull together.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It was 1987 and President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev laid a cornerstone of nuclear arms reduction, a treaty that eliminated an entire class of U.S. and Soviet missiles.

    In the 1970s and '80s, the U.S. and Soviet Union deployed mobile nuclear-tipped missiles to Europe. Under INF, both sides removed thousands of warheads and destroyed ground-launched missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.

    But for the last few years, the U.S. says Russia deployed this missile that violates the INF Treaty. Russia refused us requests to destroy it, so last week the U.S. suspended its participation.

  • Donald Trump:

    While we followed the agreement and the rules to the letter, Russia repeatedly violated its terms.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Russia says this U.S. missile defense system could be modified to launch an offensive missile, and therefore the U.S. is the violator.

    Last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin also suspended Russia's INF participation, and this week, the Russian military vowed to develop new ground-launched missiles.

    But Russia's not the only U.S. concern. U.S. officials say China and Iran each have more than 1,000 medium-range missiles.

  • Donald Trump:

    Perhaps we can negotiate a different agreement, adding China and others, or perhaps we can't, in which case, we will outspend and out-innovate all others by far.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That presidential promise raises questions about an arms race, as the U.S. is currently debating what to do about another arms control cornerstone, the New START treaty, signed in 2010 by President Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It limits the number of long-range nuclear weapons, and is up for renewal in 2021.

    And we are joined now by Andrea Thompson, undersecretary for arms control and international security at the State Department.

    Undersecretary Thompson, thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Andrea Thompson:

    Thanks, Nick. Thanks for having me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What's the plan to avoid an arms race? Or are you trying to get Russia in an arms race?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    No, We're not trying to get Russia in an arms race.

    As I tell folks, we have remained in compliance with the INF Treaty and all of our other arms control treaties, where Russia has violated that. So, when folks point to an arms race, my counterpoint is that Russia started an arms race. And it started eight years ago, when it violated the INF Treaty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Does that mean you are OK if an arms race begins now?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    You know, it's not an arms race. It's upholding what's right for arms control regimes.

    I remind folks that we have called out Russia repeatedly. Our partners and allies have called out Russia repeatedly. And they continue to deny that they're violating the treaty.

    If you allow a treaty party to violate it with no consequences, you have now undermined all of arms control.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But this isn't the first time in the last few decades of arms control that both sides have thought the other one wasn't complying by the treaty.

    And so why not consider an offer that's been on the table? The Russians examine the missile defense systems that we talked about that they have a problem with, which do have the mechanical and electronic components that could launch an offensive missile, and you examine the Russian missile in return?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    Well, the difference is, Nick, that Russia is in violation of — material breach of the INF Treaty. And our partners and allies have been inconsistent with that.

    No one has come forward and said, you know what, you're right, U.S. Maybe Russia's not made a mistake here. Consistent — you saw the NATO statement in December after the secretary made his announcement. You saw the strong NATO statement this past weekend after the president made his announcement.

    We continue to present that intelligence and information to Russia. They continue to disavow that. They have also countered with our systems that are in violation. No one, no party, other than Russia, has said that these systems are in violation. And we continue to show them the intelligence why they are in compliance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    But Lockheed itself, when you go on their Web site, describes the capacities of those missile defense systems as the capacity to have offensive. Fine, the software may not be oriented that way, but they do have the capacity. Don't the Russians have a point there?

    And why not exhaust all possibilities and examine the Russian missile, and they examine the missile defense system?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    No, they don't have — they don't have a point there.

    We have been — remained in compliance with the INF Treaty. It's clear. We have had inspections from their teams and vice versa. Our technical experts have met. We have consulted with partners and allies. And, again, everyone looks at the — looks at the system and says, you know what system isn't in compliance, is the SSC-8.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    How does the — how does removing the U.S. from the INF Treaty eliminate the threat posed by the Russian missile?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    The threat posed was initiated by Russia.

    Our obligations is, one, to fulfill our obligations for the treaty, which we have done, but first and foremost that underscores all that, the safety and security of the American people.

    Russia had chosen to violate it. We are now, by suspending our obligations, can conduct the research and development for those systems. But, again, the foundation for all this is the safety and security of the American people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So if the foundation is the safety and security of American people and American allies…

  • Andrea Thompson:

    Correct.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … the threat posed, that you say is posed by the Russian missile that you say abrogates the INF, how does withdrawing from the INF actually eliminate that threat?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    The threat is there. We are now able to conduct the research and development to put our systems into place.

    The system I already there. As I tell — for the American public and those watching, this isn't a system that's in the lab. This isn't a prototype. Russia has fielded multiple battalions, manned and equipped, that can — they can range our partners and allies and Americans abroad now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You just used the phrase conduct research and development into U.S. systems.

    Are you planning to deploy any ground-launched cruise missiles to Europe?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    That's not in the plan.

    But what I can tell you, when we develop next steps, it will be in consultation with partners and allies. And DOD has had the lead for this and has been very clear on next steps.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Been talking to NATO officials, and they say that the U.S. has briefed NATO on a plan to test a new ground-launched cruise missile after the next six months, after the INF is officially over.

    Will you test new ground-launched cruise missiles in six months?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    First, I will never project our next steps, nor will I speak for my Department of Defense counterparts.

    Important on the piece there is, it's in consulting with partners and allies. As — we met with the Russians in Geneva on January 15. And in January 16, we were in Brussels briefing our NATO partners. And we will continue to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I want to move to the New START treaty, which, as we discussed, talks about long-range nuclear missiles.

    To extend New START beyond 2021, will you ask for new terms with the Russians?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    Well, the — 2021 is, as you point out, a couple years away. We have got time with New START.

    And the important point there is, we have met our central limits of New START. We're in compliance with the New START treaty, and, quite candidly, Russia is in compliance at this point with the New START treaty.

    So, the 50-meter target, to use a military term, is the INF Treaty and Russia's compliance and getting back into compliance with that. We have got a couple of years with New START, and we look forward to continuing to fulfill our obligations under all those treaties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, both sides, as you say, are under compliance.

    But I want to bring up National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has opposed arms control treaties. And I want to play a few sound bites from him, starting in 2002, when he opposed the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

  • John Bolton:

    Absent an agreement with the Russian side, which is our preference, then we will exercise our unilateral option to withdraw.

    I would urge him to get out of the Iran deal completely.

    I think President Trump should say to Vladimir Putin, you either bring Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, or we're going to get out of that one too.

    The next step in the bilateral relationship with Russia is for this administration to abrogate the New START treaty, so that we have a nuclear deterrent that's equal to our needs to prevent future conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Four major arms control treaties, four treaties that he wanted to leave, the national security adviser.

    Led by him, is the U.S. going to withdraw from the New START treaty?

  • Andrea Thompson:

    I have no intentions of addressing that today.

    We have got two more years. Again, we have got an interagency process addressing that. The fundamentals of that is what's best for the safety and security of the American people. And it's a complex security environment. We will see what 2021 holds.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Undersecretary Andrea Thompson, thank you very much.

  • Andrea Thompson:

    Thanks, Nick.

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