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.
Russian Federation is the successor state to the Soviet Union. Before its dissolution, the Soviet Union and the US were the key factions in world politics. They were briefly allies during the World War II but by the end of the war, they had become hostile. Brewing mistrust was one of the main reasons for the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (as well as the creation of Russia) seemingly brought an end to a period of uncertainty and turmoil. Relations even improved between the two nations during the tenure of Russia's President Boris Yeltsin but it took a significant step back under Putin.
During 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 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty swept this whole category of weapon away and significantly reduced tensions.
Relations between Russia and the US deteriorated in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. It cited a controversial referendum for doing so. As a result, Barack Obama and his EU allies unveiled a coordinated set of sanctions against Russia and ordered it to leave Crimea. Russia responded with counter-sanctions.
Russia’s alleged interference in the US Presidential elections has further caused tensions in the ties. Despite Russia’s repeated denials, US imposed harsh sanctions on Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
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. However, she appeared to indicate that the US might consider military action if Russia's development of the system continued.
"At that point we would be looking at the capability to take out a (Russian) missile that could hit any of our countries," she said, adding counter-measures (by the US) would be to take out the missiles that are in development by Russia in violation of the treaty.
Other US experts have sometimes suggested that a more likely US response might be to throw over the INF treaty itself and deploy a similar category of weapon. That would be a huge step back for global arms control.
Russia's foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said: "It seems that people who make such statements do not realise the level of their responsibility and the danger of aggressive rhetoric."
Russia’s long-standing defence against any accusations from Washington has been that of highlighting excessive rhetoric and downplaying any concerns. However, there has been no concrete reply to US’s strong threat of eliminating its missile corps, implying that Moscow is not taking the threat seriously. There is also the more serious concern of Russia wilfully violating the INF treaty, which could have a cascading impact on US-Russia ties.
Our assessment is that relations between the US and Russia are unlikely to improve in the coming months. Russia has already signalled its intent to retaliate to US’ orders to close down the Russian embassy in San Francisco. According to some reports, Russia is looking to reduce the number of US diplomats in its country. We feel that an effective method of reducing the built-up tension would be to sign a new mutual disarmament treaty, much like the INF in 1987.