Putin Threatens to Violate a Treaty He Has Already Violated

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Vladimir Putin seems to have forgotten the first rule of threats: You can’t already be doing the thing you say you’re going to do in the future.

This is how to understand the Russian president’s warning this week that his country will deploy missiles aimed at Europe should the U.S. make good on its promise to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

Some context is helpful: On Tuesday, NATO’s foreign ministers issued a statement calling out Russia for being in breach of that treaty. NATO has been raising objections to Russia’s 9M729 missile system for five years, the statement says, and “Russia has responded to our concerns with denials and obfuscation.” Only recently has Moscow even acknowledged the 9M729 system, and has yet to provide an explanation or the necessary technical information about it as required by the treaty.

The NATO statement represents a diplomatic victory for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pressed the case against Russia to allies this week at a summit in Brussels. Even a few weeks ago, it was unclear whether his efforts would pay off.

When the Trump administration signaled its intention to withdraw from the treaty in October, the Germans in particular expressed concern. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini last month urged both the U.S. and Russia to take steps to strengthen the treaty instead of abandoning it. Meanwhile, three Democratic senators — Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Mark Warner of Virginia — sent a letter this week to President Donald Trump warning that a hasty withdrawal from the treaty would exacerbate tensions within NATO.

This is why it’s so significant that the NATO statement is so strong. There is no hedging: NATO allies place the blame squarely on Russia for violating the treaty. And while the statement does not endorse a U.S. withdrawal, it does urge Russia to take advantage of a 60-day window before the U.S. gets out of the treaty to come back into compliance.

So what does Putin think he is accomplishing with his latest threats? If he was trying to sway the German government or other NATO allies, he was a day late. A month ago it looked like the INF treaty would drive a wedge in the trans-Atlantic alliance. This week, Russian violations of that treaty brought the allies together.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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