The threat from a senior US diplomat to “take out” Russian missiles that Washington believes are in breach of an important Cold War arms control treaty looks set to cause additional tensions with Moscow, just ahead of a meeting of Nato defence ministers that opens in Brussels on Wednesday.
The US ambassador to Nato, Kay Bailey Hutchison, was speaking ahead of that meeting and brought up once again Washington’s contention that Russia is in breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement of 1987.
This treaty banned a whole category of weapons: ground-launched medium-range missiles, capable of striking targets at distances between 500 and 5,500km (310-3,100 miles). Now, the Americans insist, despite Russian denials, that Moscow has a new medium-range missile in its inventory – the Novator 9M729 – known to Nato as the SSC-8.
This would enable Russia to launch a nuclear strike at Nato countries at very short notice.
Ambassador Hutchison said the US wants to find a diplomatic solution to this problem.
But she appeared to indicate that the US might consider military action if Russia’s development of the system continued.
Back in the Cold War, the US was alarmed at the then Soviet Union’s deployment of the SS-20 system. Some of Washington’s allies agreed to receive US Pershing and Cruise missiles in response. The move prompted widespread protests and huge political tensions. The resulting INF treaty swept this whole category of weapon away and significantly reduced tensions.
For a long time experts were not even certain which specific missile was being talked about. Is this just an extended range version of the Iskander-M – an existing Russian weapon?
Or could it be a new variant of the sea-launched Kalibr land attack missile that has been used by the Russian navy against targets in Syria?
Whatever the details, the US insists the Russians are in breach of the INF agreement. That matters.