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May 28, 2014

Congress: U.S. should confront Russia

WASHINGTON — Congress is stepping up pressure on the White House to confront Russia over allegations that it is cheating on a key nuclear arms treaty — a faceoff that could further strain U.S.-Moscow relations and dampen President Barack Obama’s hopes to add deeper cuts in nuclear arsenals to his legacy.

Butting heads with Russian President Vladimir Putin over compliance with a 26-year-old treaty to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons is not something that fits into Obama’s “reset” with Russia, which already was stalled after Russia granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. But the issue has been simmering for a few years and Republicans on Capitol Hill want Obama to address it head-on.

The Russians are accused of testing a new ground-launched cruise missile in violation of the treaty. Russian officials say they have looked into the allegations and consider the matter closed.

It’s unclear why the administration, which has raised the issue with Russia through diplomatic channels, doesn’t want to publicly blow the whistle on Moscow’s alleged violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987. The treaty banned all U.S. and Russian land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 miles and 3,400 miles.

There are several theories: The U.S. doesn’t want Russia to pull out of the treaty altogether, which would be embarrassing for a president who declared his vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has won Senate ratification of the New START treaty, the most significant arms control pact in nearly two decades.

The treaty, which took effect in February 2011, requires the U.S. and Russia to reduce the number of their strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550 by February 2018.

Last June, Obama announced in Berlin that he wants to cut the number of U.S. nuclear arms by another third, which would shrink the total to between 1,000 and 1,100 weapons for bombers and land- and sea-based missiles. He said he intends to “seek negotiated cuts” with Russia — something Congress would be unlikely to approve if Russia is found in violation of the 1987 INF treaty.

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