State Dept. Officials Warn Senate About Russian Threats to US

December 5, 2019 by Tom Ramstack
Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for national security and nonproliferation.

WASHINGTON — Top U.S. State Department officials warned Tuesday about aggression from Russia as Congress considers legislation to counter the country’s military and political threats.

The officials spoke during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it reviewed Russia’s compliance with the New START arms control treaty and potential threats of meddling into U.S. elections.

A legislative proposal preferred by Democrats would extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, from the scheduled expiration in 2021 to 2026. The treaty prohibits funding to increase the U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals and armed forces above limits specified in the agreement. The treaty limits nuclear warheads to 1,550 for each country.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, when Democrats announced their proposal in May, “As long as Russia continues meeting its treaty commitments, there is no logical reason why New START should not be extended.”

However, a State Department official who monitors military arms proliferation, cast doubt on Russia’s sincerity in controlling its arsenal during the Senate hearing Tuesday.

“We assess that Russia does still remain in compliance with its New START obligations, but its behavior in connection with most other arms control agreements — and not merely the ill-fated INF Treaty — has been nothing short of appalling,” Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for national security and nonproliferation, said in his testimony.

The INF Treaty refers to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The landmark 1987 treaty required the U.S. and the Soviet Union to eliminate all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the treaty in August, accusing the Russians of violations, which the Russians denied.

Trump has also said New START was a bad deal for the U.S..

The State Department’s Ford warned of another possible arms race if no agreements can be reached.

“Russia is projected to expand its number of non-strategic weapons considerably over the next decade,” he said.

His comments closely followed observations by Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, some of whom want to increase spending for the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal.

Strategic weapons generally refer to nuclear missiles designed to hit targets far from battlefields as part of a plan to destroy military bases, command centers, arms industries, transportation and economic assets. Non-strategic weapons could be nuclear but they are designed for shorter-range targets.

So far, U.S. policy to counter the Russians has relied heavily on economic sanctions. 

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, cautioned that sanctions fall short of a comprehensive Russian policy.

“While U.S. financial preeminence makes sanctions an easy and somewhat effective tool, I have serious concerns about the consequences of their overuse, particularly in the absence of a larger strategy,” he said. “More sanctions don’t make us tougher on Russia.”

The Senate committee also heard a State Department official deny that Ukraine sponsored meddling in the 2016 election won by Trump. State Department officials said the allegation started with the Russian security forces who were trying to evade responsibility for influencing the election in Trump’s favor, largely through political Internet postings.

David Hale, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, testified that “the intelligence community assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at our presidential election.”

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked Hale, “Are you aware of any evidence that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election?”

Hale answered, “I am not.”

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